Volunteering during a pandemic

A blog post by John MacLennan

John MacLennan

Posted 10/11/2020

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With 2020 almost over, we asked one of our volunteers, John MacLennan, to reflect on how this year has been different for him in terms of volunteering and what he has found out through reaching out to and supporting our groups. John gives us so much of his time, and has done so for many years, volunteering as a judge for Beautiful Scotland and as an assessor/mentor for It’s Your Neighbourhood. Groups across Scotland benefit from his expertise, enthusiasm, wit and continued support for their endeavours in making their communities brighter, better and more connected places to live and visit so we wanted to let the spotlight shine on John for a change.


Facing a long retirement sitting in front of daytime TV was never my preference, and so six years or so ago I joined the team of mentors, assessors and judges for Keep Scotland Beautiful’s ‘It's Your Neighbourhood’ and ‘Beautiful Scotland’ initiatives. Community gardening has always been part of my life and became more serious sixty years or so ago when I was a blond-haired boy in shorts staging vases of sweet peas, and three tomatoes on the show bench at my local flower show. Throughout my working life in horticulture there has also been indirect input into ‘Bloom activity’, through encouraging local authorities and groups on the best varieties to choose to achieve winning results, although sometimes not with the results they hoped for - choosing black flowering bedding plants for Newcastle United FC logo was impossible, and similarly for a German flag.

Until the onset of the pandemic, my summer months as an It’s Your Neighbourhood mentor were spent having day trips throughout Central Scotland, with a typical day starting on Citylink 900 to Glasgow and then choosing which of the McGills bus services to take. Each day was unique, with my knowledge of community gardening increasing with every trip. From these visits I also found how small the Scottish gardening circle is, by meeting up with, on occasions, colleagues and friends of colleagues from years past - quite scary sometimes!  One semi-related occurrence was when visiting a group in Dundee, I was able to return a WW2 New Testament to a soldier’s extended family, although it was puzzling to all of us how it ended up in a ‘box of odds’ in a collectables auction!  There is no typical visit, although fair to say the common element must be how the group can change their community for the better - from being a catalyst for fundraising for a new playpark to improving street corners into places of ‘edibles’, and from making a green environment for nursery age children to growing spaces for the homeless.

The pandemic this year has meant no face to face visiting was permitted, and my twice weekly jaunts ceased.  However, as a mentor linking up with groups, the use of social media was vital and, over six weeks in August and early September I made contact with over fifty groups to see how they were getting on and to offer support and encouragement. What I found from my social media ‘visits’ and my support emails and phone calls, was that the Covid-19 restrictions have not reduced the impact groups were making within their community. One group, for example, had taken over the council’s regular grass cutting, producing a sward superior in quality to the usual from their local greenspace team.

And what are the hurdles and barriers that were to be overcome by groups?  The lack of traffic and human activity resulted in an increase in birds, including those nesting in shrubs, and so in several incidences the usual summer pruning of the Spring flowering shrubs had to be delayed. Another challenge our groups rose to this summer was looking after the well-being of their communities through, for example, setting up walking groups, arts, crafts and woodwork classes, as well as supporting and running foodbanks.

Although groups will have found Beautiful Scotland and It’s Your Neighbourhood’s three pillars of horticultural/gardening achievement, environmental responsibility and community participation, as set out by our partner the Royal Horticultural Society, not as easy to adhere to this year, the initiatives have continued, perhaps from different directions due to the ingenuity of groups.

Due to Covid-19, sadly there could be no competition element for Beautiful Scotland or assessor visits for It’s Your Neighbourhood this year. Despite this, perhaps there are too many cliches which could be used to describe how Keep Scotland Beautiful kept the initiatives running, such as ‘thinking outside the box’ or ‘it’s business as usual’. It is clear, even with Covid-19 restrictions that the initiatives have mutated into being more group/community focussed.

Among the successes must be the regular e-newsletter, with numerous contributions from the groups as well as subtle editorial lifting of stories from social media pages, often with the content and length being of a superior standard to professionally produced gardening magazines. Another vital component of 2020 has been the online Zoom sessions in which a vast range of themes, from anti-social behaviour to plants for pollinators have been discussed, as well as the semi-regular Gardeners’ Question Time sessions, which on several occasions proved that the group members know as much as the judges and assessors/mentors. Perhaps the success of these avenues has ensured the groups feel more part of Beautiful Scotland and It’s Your Neighbourhood, and also that we all have experiences we can share.

No one can be sure how 2021 will be affected by Covid 19, but even if there is a progression over the Spring and Summer months to some form of normality, the successes of  Microsoft Teams  meetings and Zoom, with the ability to be used for small group discussion as well as for talks, and a regular e-newsletter with numerous items from the groups are bound to continue.

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