West Berkshire Council


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Connecting residents through WhatsApp - Frilsham Support Group Case Study

The Community Support Hub was delighted to interview Tessa Allum of the Frilsham Support Group, who explains how the village WhatsApp Group played a vital role in connecting residents and co-ordinating local support throughout the coronavirus emergency.


Thank you Tessa, for sharing your valuable insights with us. First of all, how did the WhatsApp group for Frilsham get started?

My pleasure. I'd first like to say that I'm so impressed by all the wonderful efforts co-ordinated by other community and volunteer groups in neighbouring towns and villages throughout West Berkshire.

Regarding Frilsham, our villagers have always been supportive to their neighbours in normal times, so nearly everyone in isolation already had someone looking out for them when coronavirus struck. A number of volunteers also came forward and the Frilsham Support Group was formed.

2020 - WA signup
2020 - WA signup
One of our first activities was to set up the WhatsApp group in February to support this active community spirit by co-ordinating efforts or providing assistance for those isolating or vulnerable who needed a little extra help.

In fact, at the end of last year, I had been toying with the idea of setting up a private WhatsApp group for villagers to stay in touch. However it was in February, when an Italian friend of mine, in touch with friends back in Italy, said that the British have "no idea what's about to hit them," that I realised we needed something simple, and quickly.

Based on what she was hearing from her friends and family in Italy, the enormity of the situation really struck me. Therefore the WhatsApp group was created even before our lockdown started. I knew that WhatsApp would be an effective communications tool to provide the latest news and alerts about the coronavirus emergency to our villagers in addition to the Facebook community page that had been in existence for some time.


What's the difference between the Frilsham Community Facebook page and the WhatsApp group?

The two platforms have some similarities in that they are both used by members of our community to share news about the village and the coronavirus situation, but both serve slightly different purposes.

The Facebook page has members from the village, but also from the surrounding area. On Facebook, villagers post news, views, discussions and photographs. It has been a useful way for the support group to post information that has some degree of 'longevity' as posts remain visible for some time. Although in usual times we try to restrict commercial posts, recently we've relaxed that rule so that we can support our local businesses as they struggle to recover.

On the other hand, our WhatsApp group is an instantaneous messaging service supporting Frilsham residents and people close to them (in some cases, family members living elsewhere who may need to get in touch with someone in the village to look in on their relative). It is a platform for more immediate requests and very local news alerts. Initially we thought it would be used for quick callouts for help needed, such as collecting a prescription, help with shopping or seeing to a recalcitrant boiler. People can ask for help directly via WhatsApp, or remain confidential by messaging me privately, whereupon I will put out a discreet request for assistance on WhatsApp without naming the individual.

2020 - WA1
2020 - WA1
The volume of messages was intense at the beginning of lockdown, with information being exchanged on what was happening and how people were coping. Grocery deliveries were difficult to obtain, so when someone was able to book one they would offer to obtain urgent shopping for others.

For a short period, anyone who managed to get bread flour or yeast let people know and happily shared it out. As it has evolved, the WhatsApp group now includes offers of giveaway spare plants - tomato, courgette and cucumber were popular - clearout items of furniture or toys, and more lately excess garden produce from all those exchanged plants and seeds.


What tips would you have for anyone wanting to set up a WhatsApp group?

To launch the Frilsham Support Group, we delivered leaflets to every household in the village. These promoted the WhatsApp group as a way to ask for help, but also to offer to volunteer. We quickly had over 40 people offering to help.

We directed all WhatsApp joining requests to a single point of contact to reduce any confusion. All people had to do was download the app if they didn't already use it, and email or text me their mobile number. Then I immediately added them to the group. We also made it clear that this was a simple messaging service for Frilsham residents, and not an advertising platform.

Once your WhatsApp group conversations get underway, you'll find the chatter can get very cluttered if you are not careful. We therefore have been politely encouraging people to 'Reply Privately' to group messages, rather than 'Reply' to all. It's key to teach everyone this habit so that important messages don't get lost.

2020 - WA2
2020 - WA2
In addition, to help make important announcements stand out, I preface these with short key words such as "REQUEST FOR HELP" or "FOR INFORMATION."


What's in store for the future?

As far as upcoming activities are concerned, our focus is on making sure people know we are still here and ready to help - they may choose to keep isolating, or have to quarantine, or if lockdown restrictions come back in. We plan to keep the WhatsApp group going, as it's really helped foster an already strong community spirit and keep people in touch with each other. I'm also really delighted that people have made new friends and connections through the group.


Anything else you'd like to share?

This was definitely work of a team! I'd like to thank profusely the 'core team' volunteers who each took the lead in their particular areas of support. Also, a huge thanks and shout out to our District Councillor, Carolyne Culver. Throughout the lockdown period Carolyne held weekly calls with the volunteer group leaders across our Ward to keep us all updated on the latest news from the Council and to offer her support on any matter. These calls were also a great way to hear about the superb volunteering activities happening in other areas of West Berkshire, and to share ideas with one another. This support has been absolutely brilliant!