Retired doctor turned community worker: Kim Shamash

Photo of Kim Shamash
Kim Shamash

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Kim Shamash has been helping to set up and organise Brighton and Hove Mutual Aid groups and the Balfour food bank. She talked to Sussex Bylines about her community support work.

In March 2020, the NHS invited retired health professionals to return to work to help fight against coronavirus. As a retired doctor, Kim considered joining this so-called ‘Dad’s Army’, but felt she could make more of a difference in the community within the Mutual Aid network. She described how the Brighton and Hove network sprang up just before the first lockdown, growing from a central website, helpline and email address at the same time as from the grassroots street level.

Within a week there were 42 areas with at least 3,000 people joining numerous area and street WhatsApp and Facebook groups to request or offer mutual support − “a people’s army of mutual aid”. Kim formed the Surrenden and Varndean group and organised the quick delivery of flyers before the lockdown, so that vulnerable people would have a number to ring if they lost their usual support.

By April, Kim was aware that some people in clinically vulnerable groups in areas of low need were posting that they had government-issued food parcels that they did not want, whilst there were many others who were in great need. She helped form a citywide group of volunteers whose main function became to help with shopping, collection of medication and the redistribution of this food. She also formed a home-based group to provide digital support for people unable to apply for help or order food online. The Mutual Aid network had developed into a set of neighbourhood and citywide groups as well as a few projects for specific vulnerable groups, all loosely connected by a reps’ group that met on a regular basis.

At the start of the lockdown, a teacher at Balfour School set up a pop-up food bank there, and local parents “flooded” it with donations which supplied families from all over Brighton and Hove. When the school re-opened at the end of June and Natasha the teacher returned to work, the food bank had to close. But since Mutual Aid was already involved in food redistribution, Kim and others moved it to a church hall and took it on as a Mutual Aid project. With the help of donations, as well as support from the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, members of Fareshare Sussex, plus local businesses and other projects, they provided food for 45 families of around 110 people and their pets. Unlike most food banks, they do not require referrals or ask eligibility questions, so people who might not have been able to access local food bank support were able to come to them.

There was an increase in awareness of need when the government decided that families on free school meals would not be given food vouchers during the October half term, although they had done so during the summer holidays. Kim described the “uproar” which followed the intervention of Marcus Rashford, the footballer and campaigner: “People were ignited with the desire to help kids.” This resulted in an upsurge in donations – £2,000 in one week – and continued with reverse advent calendars and other fund-raising activities in the run-up to Christmas.

The Balfour food bank has now moved from the church hall to the cricket pavilion in Preston Park, where they can stay until March. This has given rise to some logistical issues, as the pavilion is considerably smaller than the church hall. Kim described how they now have to plan carefully for social distancing: “Everyone books a slot, including the drivers. People are encouraged to pre-order.” There is a pool of 40 volunteers, 30 of whom are regulars, and the food bank is open four days a week – “it’s like running a shop” – and almost a full-time job for Kim at the moment.

Kim told me that there are about 25 food banks across Brighton and Hove, some of which “popped up opportunistically” in buildings that could not be used for normal purposes, such as community centres and church halls. Some have closed and re-opened as demand changes: “It’s a fluid situation,” she explained. The Balfour food bank still does not require a central referral process, which would include a lot of personal information: “We don’t ask questions.” They have befrienders and can signpost people to other services and other local food banks. More people can be helped outside “normal” eligibility, such as those who are working, not eligible for benefits or simply waiting for universal credit.

The Balfour food bank has a lot of followers – more than 350 ‘likes’ on Facebook – and a healthy number of donations: “Within hours, if we say we are running low on something, it will be donated.” There is some local need around Preston Park but the food bank also helps people from central Brighton, London Road, Seven Dials, Hove, and even Hangleton and Saltdean. All food banks experienced a surge when the furlough scheme was due to end in October and people started to be laid off: “People have lost jobs, lost businesses and never imagined they would need to use a food bank. We have had people hesitate to come in, then burst into tears and say they feel ashamed.” Vulnerable people are being asked to shield again, and an extra 1.7 million have been added to the list, but there are no food parcels attached this time.

Kim is already looking ahead to the end of March, when the food bank has to close as the cricket season re-starts. Having moved twice already, another move is not on the cards, and the food bank will go back to operating as an emergency provider. But Kim feels that “There has to be a more sustainable way of responding to need.” She told me about co-operatives, which operate a low-cost membership scheme, enabling households to receive a substantial weekly food parcel. There are a number of local initiatives of this kind, including BrightStore, another Mutual Aid project which runs affordable food schemes in Hollingdean and Hove.

There is no doubting Kim’s energy and commitment. She came over as non-judgmental and caring, but also highly practical and with great organisational and leadership skills. With an ongoing need that the Trussell Trust predicted to increase by a further 60 per cent over the winter, Brighton and Hove Mutual Aid and the Balfour food bank are lucky to have Kim involved.

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