This week we speak to Sarah Scullion for our #memberinfocus feature: “The Challenges and Opportunities of 2020”.
Q1. If you could describe the year 2020 in one word, what would it be?
Q2. What was happening in your life when the pandemic struck?
Well *laughing*, I was just about to launch a travel startup specialising in event tourism! After years of preparation, Integra had been developed specifically for international events such as large scale music festivals and conferences (up to 400,000 attendees at the likes of ADE, SXSW and EDC).
I know, right? Travel AND events?? Talk about bad timing!
Just as handshakes were being replaced with elbow bumps, I pitched my inappropriately timed startup to a room full of 550 people at the the IoD Women’s Leadership Conference on Friday 6th March 2020. Within a week, my family and I were in self-isolation due to my one-year-old daughter displaying symptoms of COVID-19.
Q3. Why and when did you decide to get involved with community-based support?
After being in self-isolation for 5 days, I came up with an idea to help people during COVID-19. It was sparked after my sister-in-law mentioned that she and my brother-in-law wanted to start delivering things to the elderly. I thought it was such a lovely gesture but due to how sick my daughter was at the time, I was concerned about the transmission of infection to the elderly and people at higher risk. I worried about what my mum would do, as a woman in her 60s self-isolating, alone. I wondered if there were any guidelines in place for the many community groups forming on Facebook and WhatsApp and also, how they manage personal data.
I found that many community support groups across the UK (particularly England) were seeking a means of managing data, processes and procedures in line with legislation and guidelines. I thought, perhaps, I could set up a system that would solve this problem whilst, at the same time, allow me, as someone in isolation, to play a part in helping the community as well.
I bought the domain covid19community.org on 15th March and we had our first registration on the 16th! I wasn’t ready at all but I just ran with it. I had to ask everyone not to share for a couple of weeks from the 5th of April because I was getting hammered with requests and offers of support.
Somehow I made it through the initial 2 weeks and managed to get all the requests matched, all whilst on-boarding the volunteers and looking after a toddler. (Notice Lucía in my photo above – she is my little co-founder! She attended Zoom meetings daily throughout lockdown!)
I was very lucky to have a friend shadow me and start jumping on to allow me to take some breaks. Shout out to Charmayne for saving me in the early days and for coming on board as a key member of the team alongside myself, Danielle, Vanessa and our wider group of volunteers.
Since mid-March we’ve built a network of hundreds of volunteers and community groups, and our support has reached thousands of individuals across Northern Ireland. In some cases it has been directly, by matching support requests with local volunteers, resources, donations or community organisations; in others it has been indirectly, by matching volunteers, resources and donations with other organisations in order to increase capacity and capabilities of existing community support.
We are very proud of what we have achieved in such a short space of time and with limited resources.
Q4. What is the biggest challenge you have faced since the world went into lockdown?
The biggest challenge for me has been trying to juggle being a full-time mum whilst running my businesses from home. I already had two active businesses before launching Community Calling as a Social Enterprise.
I was in the middle of an intensive 6-month pre-accelerator programme called Propel with my travel startup and I was also doing regular freelance consultancy work via my other company, My Digital Nomad.
My husband couldn’t always understand why I was so determined to take on what seemed like an impossible amount of work but I knew I had to try to do something to help. There were many sleepless nights, there were many tears and there were days when I felt like perhaps I should give up but the feedback has always kept me going, not to mention my amazing team and all the wonderful individuals and organisations who have supported our mission. It has definitely made it a challenge worth facing!
Q5. Are you excited about any opportunities that have arisen this year?
Definitely! I have met so many inspirational people this year and have learned so much in the process. I have always believed in the power of building a good network – I just never had any experience of doing it in the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise sector. Now, it’s even more exciting as the network we are building not only provides a space for connection and collaboration but it has the overarching goal of helping people.
We have exciting plans for the next 6-18 months and have applied for funding to develop and launch our new platform for collaboration and community support, the Community Network NI.
Our mission is to connect and empower local organisations and volunteers to enhance our combined community response in NI through collaboration and better use of technology.
Q6. How are things looking for the remainder of 2020?
Although things are very uncertain, I’m confident that we will continue to find new ways to meet the needs arising as a result of COVID-19 and challenges of the VCSE sector as a whole.
Personally, I’m really excited to be moving from my kitchen into a home office when we move house later this year! It’s a new chapter for me and my family and I can’t wait to see what the coming months have in store!