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Happy at Home - South Tyneside

Happy at Home is a service aiming to offer isolated people living in South Tyneside a befriending visit in their own home, by someone living nearby. The Project is provided by South Tyneside Council and Churches Together working in partnership.


Following a presentation of an audit by Churches Together about how church premises were used for the benefit of the wider community, the Chief Executive Officer of South Tyneside Council approached Churches Together and suggested a deal where the local authority could support local churches to maintain their buildings in return for church volunteers undertaking to visit frail, lonely old people living alone. The local authority had previously identified this as a need they could not meet.

The need for the project was identified in three ways:

· We were told there was a need by the CEO of South Tyneside: it was known through the reports of all their 'care workers'.
· We knew that South Tyneside had a larger population of older people than the average for the country and that pointed to a need for the project.
· Church members knew of the need for this kind of project among their own congregations.

I think the need that had been identified by the CEO touched a cord. We launched the project at an event for local clergy/church officers and began recruiting befrienders. We didn’t ask ourselves questions about our skills and capacity to undertake this, but I think there was an assumption that this was work that church members were very capable of doing.

How the project works

Happy at Home began five years ago. Its aims are to:

· reduce social isolation;
· help people maintain their independence;
· increase opportunities for social contacts;
· maintain links between elderly people and the wider community;
· increase wellbeing for both the old people and the volunteers.

These aims link with concepts that are of current interest, such as building social capital and Big Society.

The service is available to all adults aged 18 and over who are socially isolated. This could include people with:

· A learning disability;
· A physical disability;
· A mental health problem.

In reality, all the people we support are very elderly, live alone in their home and are without significant family support. Individuals could already be in receipt of other services provided by Adult Services, such as home care or day care.

The people to be visited are ‘matched’ up with a suitable befriender who will visit on a regular basis. Befrienders are volunteers recruited by Churches Together. They provide company in the person’s own home to prevent feelings of loneliness and isolation. For example, they may sit and chat or they take part in some activity such as a game or reading. They are not expected to carry out other tasks. We try to match befrienders with elderly people who live nearby so as to retain a ‘good neighbour’ ethos.

Previously council officers were responsible for administrative support and matching older people with befrienders and the churches were responsible for recruiting volunteers. Social events were organised by the whole group. Recently arrangements have changed because South Tyneside Council has taken a very large funding cut from government and many posts have been axed. Adult Social Care will continue to identify old people needing a visit and the Council will carry out the CRB checks. Churches Together will be responsible for everything else.

The project is managed by a steering group made up of four members of Churches Together South Tyneside, a volunteer befriender and one council officer. The steering group meets every 2 months. Leadership has come from the steering group supported/advised by officers from the local authority.

The project’s development

It has developed slowly. We have worked hard to increase the number of volunteers. There is always a long waiting list of old people wanting a befriender. Some churches responded enthusiastically from the beginning and have been very supportive. Others have become involved as time has passed. Some responded very negatively at the start and have not got involved. Referring to the donations from the local authority, they said they did not want to be ‘paid’ for doing work that was their Christian duty. Donations have now ceased under the new arrangements, so it will be interesting to see if these churches now get involved.


Funding was initially required for promotional material that was created by the steering group and produced by the council officers. The local authority gave us funding (linked to culture/ wellbeing) for social events. Now we need funding for our worker’s salary and expenses, office, travel, training and also for two social events that we organise annually. Costs of CRB checks are met by the council. We have had grants from CUF, Opening Cultural Doors (local authority), Faiths in Action and Grassroots. These have all finished. We are currently grant funded by CUF Mustard Seed, Active at 60 and Christ’s Hospital at Sherburn.

We have negotiated a contract with South Tyneside Council to move from grants to a commissioned service. At present we are financially secure for 12 months. The payment for this service will cover 90% of our worker’s salary, office costs and expenses.

We used church premises for the initial launch event and continue to use them for two social events a year, for recruitment events for new befrienders and for occasional special events; for example, ‘End of Life Care’ event with Age UK. Our use of church halls without charge represents giving in kind by the churches concerned.

We recruited approximately ten volunteers to get started. This number has now risen to 28 but we need an additional 20+ volunteers. We have a waiting list of around 25 old people who would benefit from a befriender visit. Calculated on the basis of paying the minimum wage for the time contributed, the financial value of volunteer time amounts to about £750 per month or £9,000 per year.

Non-financial help and support

Churches Together has effective email communication with all local churches, which we use to publicise regular focused appeals for volunteers and for referrals of old people. One supplied a musician for social events.

In the past, the council has given various sorts of help: administration support; advice and information; recruitment support (e.g. CRB checks, references); matching old people and befrienders; help with the social events; armchair exercises by Sports Development; funding advice. In future this help will be much reduced.

At diocesan level, Happy at Home representatives attended ‘Valuing Age’, a training day organised by Durham Diocese Resource Team. We were also advised and assisted with our Vulnerable Adult Policy by the Diocesan Advisor. Happy at Home also attended ‘Valuing Volunteers’, an event organised by Faith in Our Communities and financed by CUF.

Future support

Currently, Happy at Home is a project of Churches Together South Tyneside. We will soon be making the leap to an organisation with an employee and increased funding to manage. We shall have to consider governance and may have to become a registered charity. We might require support to make this transition. Advice from CUFX on employment policies etc will be very useful beforehand and at diocesan level, it would be helpful to have advice available when required such as on human resources and to have payroll support. The diocese could also help us with learning/training especially by providing opportunities to reflect theologically with others in order to deepen our understanding of links between faith and our practical work. It would be good to be in touch with other church groups that are working with older people to share experiences.

Links with other projects

We have links with Faith in Our Communities projects working with older people; for example: New Dawn Hetton, PLANT Stockton and St Luke’s Sunderland. We also have links with other church projects in South Tyneside, such as Churches KEY (for homeless young people) and we work with the Mental Health Chaplain at South Tyneside Hospital. We have strong connections with South Tyneside Council, including the Adult Services and Culture and Well-being Departments.


Independent research has shown that:

· The number of befrienders has slowly and steadily increased. Very few have left the programme, showing a high degree of commitment. They understand their role and find if very satisfying.

· Old people who are beneficiaries have indicated a high degree of satisfaction – they appreciate the friendship, enjoy the social events and feel better - they feel less lonely and isolated. They expressed sense of happiness associated with feeling of genuine intimacy and friendship and gratitude that they had been included in the project.

· Social events have reconnected old people with wider society – this feeling was increased by the attendance of the mayor and mayoress.

· The ‘good neighbour’ principle is working – the research reported that people mentioned a shared knowledge of local area, similar history and common interests all of which indicate successful matching.

· Volunteers reported increased self esteem, feeling ‘good about myself’ in helping someone in need, development of real friendships with their befriendee and increased confidence in a social context through attendance at social events.

Success factors

· Kindness and caring – high degree of empathy of everyone involved.
· High level of commitment of the steering group and the befrienders.
· Careful matching of befrienders and elderly people.
· Availability and accessibility of advice and support for befrienders when needed.
· Dealing with issues promptly.
· Attention to detail.
· Opportunities to meet others involved in the project at social events, and have fun, enjoy a lovely meal and share experiences.


· Lack of capacity among existing committee members to develop new ways of working.
· Negative attitude of some churches.
· Difficulty of recruiting new befrienders.

Challenges for the future include:

· Increasing numbers of old people are asking for a volunteer befriender.
· Recruiting more befrienders
· Employing new worker – induction, setting up supervision, develop work plan.
· Developing a business plan.
· Dealing with the transitional period as some work is transferred from council to the steering group

Opportunities include:

· Using funding to recruit new people as both committee members and befrienders.
· Widening the net of befriender recruitment to involve other faiths, wider community, students.
· Developing new partnerships with other voluntary sector organisations. Involving some of the young people from the Churches’ KEY Project in our future work.
· Organising a joint event with the Mental Health Chaplain at the local Hospital.
· Work with the Council’s Culture and Well-bring staff to offer cultural opportunities to elderly people, such as visits to the local theatre/meal.
· Developing a joint project with Contact the Elderly.
· Seeking new funding; for example, PCT/Wellbeing Project; GPs; personalisation budgets.
· Developing bigger roles for experienced befrienders; for example, as ambassadors, mentors and contributors to the training programme.
· Developing the induction and ongoing training programme using IT.

Bernadette Askins