Cookham SOS, whistling while they work...

I doubt there is anyone in the village who is unaware of Cookham SOS, but just in case your social distancing has been so super-efficient that you missed it, here is the top line.  I think it would be described as a “community response group”, set up as a direct reaction to the threat we all face from the Corona virus.  It is supporting the vulnerable of our village, those in self isolation and those who perhaps don’t have family locally.  And it has already proved to be a lifeline.  Since it was started on the 14th March to time of writing, Cookham SOS has actioned on 500 requests for help.  Let me repeat that…five hundred requests for help. 

But what does it take to get something like this off the ground?  In my head it happened like a Disney film.  A Princess trilled a happy song and the whole of Cookham rallied.  Just as the Bluebirds and the Bambis worked to help Snow White, everyone in the village gave of their time and skills willingly, generously and above all, with compassion.  And to be fair, I think that was pretty much how it went.  Although of course, there was a bit more to it than that.  So grab a cuppa because this is a longer one than normal - this is the story of that Bit More…

"Whistle While You Work" Disney 1937
Do you remember when things were only Mildly Bonkers?  We could still go out, but we all had an uncontrollable urge to buy toilet roll although we didn’t really know why.  We knew there was some sort of storm coming, but it didn’t impact our online shopping and whatever was a ventilator anyway?  That’s when the idea came.

Jus Moody from Cookham Edit and Miriam Blazey, Manager of the Elizabeth House Day Care Centre were putting the world to rights over a coffee and a Custard Cream.  As they chatted about the Mildly Bonkers, they were surrounded by some of the 73 elders that the centre looks after.  Jus was telling Miriam of all the offers of help she had spotted across disparate social media groups.  Miriam was sharing her concerns for her residents – which reminded Jus of a Facebook post from one of her own friends.  Over at the Co-Op on Shifford Crescent, an older gentleman was found distressed and confused because when he went to do his shop, there was nothing on the shelves.  So here we had offers TO help and people clearly REQUIRING help.  Could the two be brought together?

The cast was beginning to form – instead of Snow White’s forest animals there were the Parish Council, the Cookham Voluntary Service, the Medical Centre, and Holy Trinity.  Instead of singing “Whistle While You Work” and hoping for magic, social media and hard graft created the magic.  Within 24 hours of starting the Cookham SOS Facebook group, there were 402 local people in one online place, ready and willing to help, just unsure what that meant.  Suddenly Cookham SOS had a following, a hub location (at Elizabeth house, although with a ticking clock), branding and signage (thanks to Creative Signs and Graphics at Lower Mount Farm) and a growing pile of admin thanks to forms created by ALS Presentation in Bourne End.

But still, a Bit More was needed because this new cast needed direction. The storm was gathering pace and we’d moved from Mildly Bonkers to Utterly Bonkers, with a new word in our vocabulary looming – lockdown.  Elizabeth House was to be closed, leaving 73 elders without access to a fundamental service.  Down at the pharmacy, Neelm Kaur Saini was struggling to process upwards of 500 prescriptions a day.  And so in came Cookham SOS with directions.  They split the entire village into micro-communities, a nod to the past when everyone knew their neighbours, and 262 active volunteers were assigned to a community team based on their location.  Then a dedicated group with a team leader and special “clearance” levels was created to help Neelm deliver prescriptions. 

Time was ticking and there was an increasing sense of urgency.  If you know your Cookham Plan, you’ll be aware that we have an older than average community – 19% of the village are over 60 (vs. 15.4% for RBWM generally).  By the nature of this audience, many are not social media savvy and so any online message was unlikely to reach them.  Before lockdown hit, around 3,000 leaflets were hand delivered (whilst maintaining strict social distancing guidelines) to households in Cookham.  Each one offered help, each one had a telephone number directly to a volunteer.  And when I say volunteer, you might now be thinking of your own friends and family, because by Lockdown Day 1 (24th March) Cookham SOS had swollen to 808 people.

Now came an additional complication.  Cookham SOS is ratified by both the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead and Thames Valley Police, who had started spot checks on those leaving their house after lockdown.  ID cards had already been issued but with so many new volunteers, a second round had to be provided from the hub before Elizabeth House closed its doors completely on Friday 3rd April.  Plus there were perishable donations from Cliveden House Hotel and John Lewis’s Odney Club to process.  Oh, and did I mention the Just Giving page that has already raised it’s £500 target meaning it is ready for funding emergencies – like that gentleman in the Co-Op.  So the direction had to keep coming.

Some Cookham SOS stats from the time of writing:
·         There are 976 Facebook supporters.
·         58% of the people in the Facebook group are aged between 25 and 54.  And to my earlier point about many of the older people in the community not being on social media, only 7% of people in the group are over 65.
·         From this pool of volunteers there are 262 active volunteers in 41 micro-community teams, plus a team of approximately 150 people on standby.  When the storm hits, the current volunteers may need to be replaced because they have had to self-isolate.
·         Neelm at the pharmacy is now supported by 22 volunteers, split into two prescriptions teams.
·         The group has people from Canada to Kendal, Sydney to Sunderland - relatives of Cookham residents.

So what next then?  Well, two things.  Firstly – our community is prepared.  Because of Cookham SOS, we are armed and so ready.  We have limited control of the Utterly Bonkers, but this preparedness gives us some control back.  No one in this village need go without medication, or food.  Nobody, young or old, needs to wander round the Co-Op feeling scared because they can’t buy shopping.  No family member in Canada needs to worry how their parent is going to get a prescription. 

And secondly, let’s talk about change. Cookham SOS described the group not as a concept to catalyse change but more profoundly as a way to “facilitate a change in mental attitude, fundamentally a know-thy-neighbour ethic”.  It’s very clear, not everyone will make it out of the Utterly Bonkers.  This experience SHOULD change us, we DESERVE to have it change us.  The change I am hoping for is a greater level of consideration.  I hope for a more considered way of life and interactions with other humans.  I hope, in fact I might demand, a more considered relationship with our planet and all the beings we share it with, one that is a whole lot gentler.  And on the other side of the Utterly Bonkers, we can start right here in Cookham.  With our neighbours - you know, the ones behind the big electric gates.  And on our beloved Cockmarsh, where we can pause to breathe in the space it gives our heads, the habitat it provides for wildlife and the trees and plants we watch re-new every year, before we move on having picked up someone else’s litter.

Oh, and actually, there is a third thing.  I am going to buy Jus and Miriam a large glass of wine.


  1. Awe that's a fab write-up. We have all the Disney characters you need at Cookham SOS!


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