For many, the advent of the Covid-19 outbreak has been overwhelming and disastrous. Yet, for the thousands of communities coming together, society has simultaneously begun to pave the way for a kinder, more neighbourly future. The young are looking out for the elderly and those with family and friends are reaching out to those in the community who are isolated or lonely.
For Middlesbrough-based community group, Ally Pals, this sense of community togetherness is something they’ve been creating in their neighbourhood for the last 15 years.
Not immune to the devastating effects of the pandemic, this year Ally Pals’ very sadly lost their founding member Jim to Covid-19. Jim started Alley Pals with his neighbour Mavis and will be sorely missed by his loved-ones and friends.
Despite this, Catherine Howell, who is the co-founder of Barefoot Kitchen - the community interest company that now manages the Alley Pals project - knows his memory will continue to inspire others to carry on his heartfelt community work.
With so much history behind them, we caught up with Catherine, to share the story of this unique project along with the work neighbours have been putting in to support the local community during lockdown.
The secret gardens
With somewhat unusual beginnings, Ally Pals was set up when the local authority began gating the alleys that sit between Middlesbrough’s back-to-back terraced housing.
Catherine tells us: “The local authority’s main goal was to prevent crime but at the same time they inadvertently created safe and enclosed spaces that communities could use.
“People realised that with a lick of paint, and a few planters, the alleys could become incredible shared gardens.”
Since then, a team of green-fingered neighbours has cleared, cleaned, painted and planted in more alleys than you could count. Over the years, these spaces have become essential to the neighbourhood - for residents to sit and relax and children to play and learn - they’ve even been used for community parties, film nights and concerts - all with the ultimate aim of bringing people together.
More recently, with local community interest company Barefoot Kitchen helping to increase the impact of Ally Pals - the project has blossomed.
Catherine explains: “Barefoot Kitchen has been working to support the Alley Pals groups by finding funding - such as the Neighbourly Community Fund - to help realise their ideas and linking them with other networks that can help out.
“For example, Alley Pals had struggled to access compost locally, so we helped them set up a small garden centre in a shipping container at the local community hub car park. And when we heard that free fruit trees were on offer from a nearby environmental charity, we not only managed to get hold of the trees - but also got some free training for the residents.”
Covid community heroes
Since the Covid-19 lockdown began, Alley Pals have been unable to have their usual neighbourhood alley gatherings, but that hasn’t stopped them from being a force for good in their community.
Catherine says: “Neighbours have become close friends, helping each other with shopping errands and checking in to make sure that people are okay. Several of our Alley Pals are in isolation, but our Facebook and WhatsApp groups have been invaluable for keeping spirits up and sharing what we’re doing.
“We’ve been dropping off seeds, compost and donated seedlings, so that people can work in their own alleys and we’ve made a fantastic new connection with an organisation that is distributing our surplus allotment produce to newly-arrived and struggling families.
“We’ve also just started a ‘Community Cupboards’ project, where local people can swap and share spare gardening materials and surplus home grown veg using a box on the alley gates.”
A blooming great idea
All their hard work is paying dividends now, as Catherine explains: "In 2019, we tackled an alley that was completely overgrown and prone to flytipping, clearing 27 bags of rubbish.
“Residents loved the new space, and they began to build planters in the alleys. We helped by providing compost and plants and, later that year, two beautiful apple trees.
“One of the residents sadly contracted Coronavirus. Although he has made a recovery, he has been isolated at home. Having a green space outside that he could visit safely has been a godsend, and he was discharged at exactly the right point to see the apple trees in their first full bloom.”
Big thanks to Catherine for taking the time to tell us all about Alley Pals. This blog is dedicated to Jim and all others in the volunteer and charity community who’ve lost their lives to Covid-19.