How a single meeting sparked 500,000 more
Posted by Alex Smith on 2nd May 2020
By Alex Smith
Ten years ago, on May 6th, 2010, my life changed.
Up until that point, I'd been working in various jobs in the area I grew up in, on the cusp of Camden and Islington in north London. I'd worked in a record shop, a pub, a school, a travel agent, a supermarket – all places, as many have come to realise recently, that are hubs and drivers of local community in their own ways. Through the familiarity of the local interactions those experiences gave me, and the stories I heard across the bar and at the school gate, I'd come to appreciate the power of relationships across different life experiences.
For a while, I thought politics was the best way to further those relationships and deepen that community, and so in spring 2010 I ran for a local council seat in the area I grew up in.
That was how I met Fred, on election day in 2010.
That sunny day, as I was doing my rounds, knocking on doors and drumming up votes, Fred was one of the neighbours I met. Fred was 84 and had lived in our area for decades. But in spite of it being election season, he'd rarely had visit from a neighbour. In fact, he hadn't been seen anyone apart from his carer, or been outside of his house, for three months. So he wasn't able to come out and vote. Not today.
Not willing to give up on a vote, and spotting a wheelchair behind Fred in the doorway of his home, I suggested that, if he was comfortable, I could wheel him the hundred yards down the road to the local polling station. Fred jumped at the offer, and while we were out, he became animated – by the sun, the air and the familiar faces he waved to around his neighbourhood. But, Fred said, what he really wanted was to get a haircut.
So the next day, having lost my election, I returned to my neighbour's door and wheeled him again to the local barber shop. While we were there, Fred became animated again – sharing the stories of his life. He'd been a performer on cruise ships around the world. He loved Sinatra and the Rat Pack, just I as did. He'd played at the London Palladium it its heyday. And he'd set up and run the shop that was my favourite place growing up as a kid – a fancy dress and joke shop in Camden Town.
Clearly, Fred and I had met before – through passing but meaningful interactions more than 20 years earlier when I was a child whiling away too many hours in Fred's shop. But we'd become estranged. And that got me thinking: there must be thousands of people like Fred – with deep roots but few connections, and with a thousand stories to tell; and thousands of people like me with plenty of connections in the social media age, but who lacked or missed the real roots of community.
The Cares Family grew out of that realisation – that in an age where how we live prioritises what's efficient over what's important, where people seek constantly to save time rather than to spend it meaningfully with other people, where the lives of older and younger people are so separate, we needed to find ways to connect the past to the present to the future and to build community across the generations.
North London Cares didn't open for another 15 months, in summer 2011. But 10 years after meeting Fred, that one interaction across the generations has now sparked 500,000 more through North London Cares, South London Cares (2014), Manchester Cares (2017), Liverpool Cares (2018) and East London Cares (2019). 18,000 younger and older neighbours have now shared well over 100,000 hours of solidarity, community and connection up close and personal – at 4,500 social clubs like dance parties, Desert Island Discs Nights, visits to the rapidly-changing people and places of our big cities, choirs, World Cup watch parties, and through nearly 30,000 hours in one-to-one friendships like mine and Fred's.
Now, as the Covid-19 pandemic has struck, we have had to re-invent how we do what we do. We're proud that, while the generations need to be physically distant for a while, in many ways they're even closer together than ever – sharing hundreds of hours of phone calls, inter-city Zoom parties (all those tech workshops came in handy), and the sorts of meaningful conversations that build empathy and compassion in an age when we need more of both. In the short term, we're leaning into the crisis – determined to make the biggest difference we possibly can to help older and younger people stay connected in a disconnecting time.
But we're also focused on the long-term. As we look to that future, we're excited about our new 3G project which brings older people together with new parents and their young children. And we're excited to start sharing the learning in our journey through our brand new Multiplier project – a project inspired by another North London Cares neighbour – that will seek to help more people across the country build bridges in their own communities in their own ways.
In the meantime, we're so grateful in The Cares Family for all the support from partners, funders, donors and most importantly the thousands of older and younger people who make this community what it is – and who help one another to feel part of our rapidly-changing world, rather than left behind by it.