Love thy neighbour: how Adelaide-based organisation, Neighbours Helping Neighbours, has helped Adelaide’s elderly throughout the pandemic

Whilst COVID-19 brought out the worst in some, it brought out the best in others, as shown by Katie Standish and her grass-roots initiative to help the elderly during these unprecedented times. (Image Source: Katie Standish)

By Leon Georgiou|@Leon_Georgiou

Earlier this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to take shape, a wave of panic buying took hold across Australia.

As supermarket aisles were stripped of basic products a video surfaced on social media.

It showed an elderly Perth man searching for toilet paper in a Coles supermarket. Standing in an empty aisle, he had no choice but to buy facial tissues as a substitute.

For many people, the toilet paper frenzy was a source of frustration which they voiced on social media.

Meanwhile, for Katie Standish, founder of Neighbours Helping Neighbours (NHN), it was a call to action.

“I just felt that the whole situation was ridiculous,” she said.

“I have a two-year-old that I am trying to teach to share and here you have adults doing the opposite, acting selfishly, hoarding toilet paper.”

Katie and her husband Graham have a room detached from their house which they normally rent out on Airbnb. Consequently, they always have a few extra packets of toilet rolls on hand to service their guests.

Katie wanted to share the extra toilet rolls she had with those who needed it, especially the elderly, who didn’t have anyone they could rely on – like the man in the video.

So, she created a flyer with her contact details to drop off into letterboxes in her local area, offering the elderly essentials that had become hard to find in supermarkets.

The phone immediately started ringing; this was the start of NHN, Katie’s grass-roots initiative.

I sat down with Katie to speak to her about it and to ask what inspired her sense of compassion in these trying times. Born in a small town in Northern California, Katie was encouraged by her parents to help others. It is something she has carried with her throughout her life.

“I don’t think I am anything special or extraordinary,” she explained.

“I have the mindset to help, but I think everyone does to a certain degree,” she paused, then started laughing. “At least, I would hope so.”

After completing a Bachelor of Organisational Communications and a minor in Psychology at Chico State University in California, Katie began a career in Occupational Health and Safety.

“Looking out for other people, their wellbeing and safety, I guess that’s where my heart has always been,” she said.

As for how she moved to Adelaide, she met her Australian-born husband, Graham, while holidaying in Las Vegas with some friends, which led to her moving here in 2012.

With her personal mobile phone beginning to ring since handing out the flyers, Katie quickly realised she had underestimated the response they would have.

Initially Katie had created a Neighbours Helping Neighbours Facebook group to coordinate efforts.

The process would begin when Katie received a call from an elderly person in need of essentials. She would then create a post on the NHN page listing the items and the address where they were to be delivered.

A volunteer would respond, taking the items to the person in need and leaving them on their doorstep – one of the most important aspects of NHN was that it was a zero-contact service. Katie would then remove the address from the post to maintain people’s privacy.

NHN became so popular that every post Kate made was responded to within two hours.

However, with her phone ringing constantly, she decided to contact Telstra to see whether she could set up a virtual call centre to help handle the influx of calls.

Fortunately, this became a reality when local news network Channel 10 ran a story on NHN, which resulted in Telstra offering to set up a free 1800 service for the organisation.

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(Image source: Neighbours Helping Neighbours) 

For Katie, NHN seemed to bring out the very best in people and their desire to do good in the community.

“The idea was just to share whatever spare items you had with others, but we then had people drive to the store to pick things up and deliver them. People were so eager to help, I was so blown away by the whole experience,” she said.

As the casual Facebook page started to grow along with the use of the service, Katie decided to formalise procedures. She began the process of registering NHN as a charity  and organised a board of members.

Although extremely passionate about her efforts with NHN, it is evident that Katie is foremost a dedicated mother. While speaking, our conversation was interspersed with reassuring comments to her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Indiana, as Katie effortlessly switched between the two of us.

Katie said that even during the height of running NHN, she would work around her duties as a mother, working from her laptop when Indie lay down for a nap.

In recent weeks, NHN has seen a decline in calls, perhaps mirroring the drop in COVID-19 cases around the state and the government’s gradual lifting of restrictions as a result.

“I hope NHN will continue,” she said.

“In some ways I’m sad … because it was incredibly rewarding to watch the response from people.”

Fortunately, Katie confirmed that, going forward, NHN is determined to continue helping the elderly, and are currently trying to decide how they can do this most effectively.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding NHN’s future, Katie maintained an unwavering positivity.

“At the end of the day we helped, we did a good thing, even if it was short term,” she said.

“I want to keep it going, I want to help people. Even though toilet paper is back in shops, there’s still a lot of elderly people who might be scared to leave home and who might want to self-isolate for a while longer.”

A few weeks after our initial conversation, I received a notification from the NHN Facebook group.

With self-isolation restrictions loosening and life slowly returning to normal, the NHN board decided to cease their services.

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(Image source: Neighbours Helping Neighbours)

When Katie and I last spoke, I asked her if there was one message she hoped would outlast her community led initiative.

It was simple: don’t be selfish.

“There’s always going to be self-centred people in any society, you’re never going to be removed from that completely. But there are also a lot of good people out there,” she said.

Katie is certainly proof of that.

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