Working in one of the most deprived areas of Eastbourne (and indeed of the UK) Volunteers Network’s supporters have stepped in wherever they have identified a need – from saving and staffing a library, running a community centre, providing childcare and even helping to feed hungry mouths.

Volunteers Network is well thought of locally and works with a large number of neighbourhood partners sharing good practice and ideas, and extending services. On an estate which has seen two armed incidents in the past 12 months, the group has created a safer environment by bringing together neighbourhood police and residents.

Today it has won the Queen’s Award.

Volunteers Network was established by local people who saw an acute need to provide support to community groups and individuals within their community. The group puts the community in which it is based at the heart of all that it does. A unique approach to allowing those receiving help to keep their dignity has paid dividends itself with many users finding a way to pay back by volunteering themselves. Through its friendly and flexible approach, Volunteers Network has been able to transform the lives of many of its residents and volunteers. Its “can do” approach means that when a need is identified, the group steps in at once with practical help. For example during half term when it was realised that some children were going without a hot meal, the group stepped in immediately to fill the gap.

Evidence shows that helping others can benefit our mental health and wellbeing. Volunteers have experienced this in abundance. The Network’s many and varied services have allowed volunteers to grow in confidence and feel increasingly accepted as part of their community. Assessors were told by a regular user of the Community Larder:

“The very small charge to get food and take part in the activity makes it more acceptable than just getting something for free.” This grateful user is now volunteering on the project herself, empowered to give something back and enjoying the flexibility of choosing hours to suit herself. Another initiative is to offer users of the community café the opportunity to pay for a drink or food for someone who can’t afford it, so that they can enjoy using it, too. This is a true neighbourhood in action.

People from diverse backgrounds mix together and inter-generational links are forged through projects like Grow Eastbourne, where young children learn community spirit and respect for different people – recognising the contribution each person makes and taking these values with them as they grow up. Said one local resident: “I love going to the allotment with my grandson, learning about gardening but also making sure he grows up proud of his community and wanting to be involved.”

Throughout the Covid pandemic, Volunteers Network provided much needed support for residents suffering loneliness, mental ill-health and money issues. More than ever, volunteers were flexible and adaptable in delivering help to people in need – promptly and without judgment.

As French philosopher Matthieu Ricard said: “The greater the social awareness and charitable involvement, the greater is the happiness of the citizens.” Those words are evidently true for the staff, volunteers and service users of Volunteers Network. In a neighbourhood that could be susceptible to negativity, depression and loneliness, they have created positivity, optimism and friendship. Their dedication and initiatives are outstanding. Having visited the organisation and met with volunteers and beneficiaries, the assessors are confident that this charity is wholly deserving of QAVS recognition.