Behind the Badge'Communication is key' - Red Neighbours: the small team making a big difference
One-hundred thousand people provided with support in Anfield and Kirkby.
Some £320,000 donated to the North Liverpool Foodbank; 1,400 phone calls made to isolated members of the community during COVID-19; 200,000 meals distributed to local households; 27 care homes fully kitted out with iPads.
The numbers associated with Red Neighbours’ achievements during the five short years of its existence are so vast you could easily assume LFC’s community programme has an army of workers at its disposal.
In fact, senior manager Forbes Duff would not be able to throw together a five-a-side team from those working alongside him at Anfield Sports and Community Centre.
But the small unit, consisting of Forbes himself, one other full-time staff member and two part-time staff, have punched above their weight to say the least since the organisation’s launch in January 2017, making a difference to numerous lives in the streets around Anfield, neatly complementing the work of LFC Foundation and innovating admirably in the face of the pandemic’s many challenges.
And now, with January’s fifth birthday having come and gone, Red Neighbours is aiming to soon match or even exceed the level of impact it was having prior to the pandemic.
“It has been a significant landmark, the five years, and unfortunately things like the food issue haven’t gone away so we’re busy, and it’s good to be busy, but it’s not great that so much help is still needed,” reflects Forbes, who worked with the Foundation prior to taking the reins of the new programme.
“We need to make sure that Red Neighbours keeps making a difference in the community, which I feel it has done so far.”
Summarising Red Neighbours’ work is no easy task, seeing as it encompasses everything from treating schoolkids to their first game at Anfield to introducing pensioners to walking football. But broadly, it can be broken into four areas: food poverty and education, supporting the elderly, creating memorable experiences for young people, and promoting an active community.
“When it started five years ago, we were saying that the Foundation at that time was very much looking at social action, there wasn’t really a focus on the local need,” explains Duff, who initially began working with the club while studying at University of Liverpool, taking on his first full-time role in 2005.
“So that’s where this idea came up: ‘What about creating a team to work specifically in the Anfield area?’ We did a bit of research first for six months, but ultimately those were the four areas we thought we could have an impact on.”
Where LFC Foundation focuses largely on under-25s, much of Red Neighbours’ work revolves around the over-50 demographic - meaning they were hit especially hard by the pandemic.
Not only were programmes specifically designed to get people out of the house and interacting with new friends forced to move indoors and online, but sadly a small number of the participants passed away during that time. The persistence of the Red Neighbours team ensured vital social connections were maintained, however, and programmes such as chair-based yoga didn’t just survive but flourished in their new online setting - once some inevitable technical confusion had been overcome.
“A lot of people were unwell, a few went into hospital and a couple went in and never came out,” says Forbes. “That hits you hard because it’s people you know, and that’s tough, but that’s why we have that duty of care, looking out for people and trying to help where we can.
“Things had to stop during the pandemic, so we thought, ‘What can we do?’ Chair-based yoga was quite an easy one to move online. It was once a week, then as soon as it went online it became three times a week, because a lot of people enjoyed the social aspect of seeing how everyone was keeping and looking out for each other, it became a real hub for people. That grew naturally out of it.
“Don’t get me wrong, the first couple of weeks of getting everyone online was a challenge, everyone’s been in that situation where the camera’s facing the wrong way and you end up looking at people’s foreheads or pictures on the wall in the background!
“Things that we couldn’t move online, such as our walking football which ran twice a week in Anfield, what we did was make sure we have a touchpoint. So we sent out a breakfast pack, an essential food hamper, afternoon tea and other little things across those two years just to let people know: ‘We haven’t forgotten about you.’
“We did other things, like our Red Pens idea, where we asked kids from local schools to do postcards and little memories and then we’d send the postcards into local care homes, and the club’s partners helped too; we did a bit with NIVEA where they donated iPads to 27 care homes around the Anfield and Kirkby areas.
“But the biggest thing during the pandemic was, we were contacted by a number of community groups and clubs like Tranmere Rovers looking for support around food, and we were able to come up with this concept where every Thursday we’d create and distribute 1,000 meals. We started around April 2020 and that’s still going today, with close to around about 200,000 meals produced.”
Jen Austin, who was brought onboard to work specifically on projects in Kirkby after the AXA Training Centre opened there in 2020, is the newest addition to the Red Neighbours team. But the core trio of Forbes, Christine Mounsey and club chaplain Bill Bygroves have been engaged in community work on behalf of the club ever since the days of LFC in the Community - the forerunner to the Foundation - which was managed by Bill.
That experience gives them a keen sense of the problems needing to be addressed in the Anfield area, problems which have evolved and became more acute since 2017, and which could be compounded in the coming months by the rising cost of living, as Forbes details.
“Even before the pandemic there was need in Anfield and families looking for support. We’re coming out of the pandemic now slowly, but obviously it’s not gone anywhere and now you look at fuel prices going up, gas and electricity going up.
“Unfortunately, I think there’s going to be a second wave of need across the city, and we’ll have a part to play in that, whether it’s around food or supporting families in other ways.
“Being involved with the food has probably been our biggest success, supporting the North Liverpool Foodbank and helping Fans Supporting Foodbanks with their matchday collections, but we want to try to focus on the community pantry model now.
“We as a club funded the pantry at St George’s Church in Everton - the first community pantry in Liverpool - and we’ve now seen community pantries roll out across the city. We’re currently exploring the opportunity of having one at Anfield.
“With foodbanks, it’s emergency three-day food parcels just to fulfil that initial hunger, whereas the pantry is more of a community/social thing. You pay £3.50 and there’s bread, meat, fresh fruit, frozen and chilled products; it’s more about people being able to shop on a budget and getting quality products at a very low price.
“Obviously they work hand in hand together, because nine times out of 10 most places that have a pantry have had a foodbank previously, or still have one, but this is a progression. The ultimate aim is to get rid of foodbanks. People shouldn’t have to rely on emergency food, they would rather they’re part of a pantry and can access affordable food for a minimal fee.
“Saying that, there are always families that will need emergency food if the cost of living goes up, or there’s a loss of a job or hours. That can plunge a family into emergency and that’s where the foodbank can help. But part of the foodbank is a network to get to know the people, to offer them debt help, mental health support etc. It’s about that holistic approach rather than: ‘There’s your food, off you go.’”
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In the week after Liverpool’s Carabao Cup triumph, the trophy was at one point whisked down to Anfield Sports and Community Centre, where pupils from various local schools were waiting to admire it and have their photo taken with it.
A small example, but one that cuts to the core of Red Neighbours’ mission to ensure Anfield locals feel part of the club and can benefit from all its successes. There’s certainly a strong foundation to build on in the next five years of the organisation’s lifespan.
“Getting back to where we were a few years ago and building on it is the focus,” Forbes concludes.
“We’re all passionate about helping others. As a team we try to work together and make a difference, but I think the key is communication and building a strong foundation of relationships: work with the key people in the city and, basically, deliver on what you said you would do.
“We want Red Neighbours to make a big difference on behalf of the club.”
You can follow Red Neighbours on Twitter @Red_Neighbours and donate food on matchdays at the following collection points: Homebaked Bakery on Oakfield Road, the LFC Official Club Store or the Foodbank Unit at the Sir Kenny Dalglish Stand.