How we’re creating a virtual village of support as a response to Covid-19

We’re live prototyping and delivering a new model of intensive family support that stands to stimulate community and the economy through a new peer to peer response.

4 May 2020

Vita Maiorano, Director: Scaling Social Innovations, TACSI

In the physically distanced reality of Covid-19, The Virtual Village leverages lived experience, brings evidence based practice and applies this through digital platforms.

Over the last eight weeks we’ve heard from partners and allies globally: ‘How we can keep services operating through a Covid-19 world?’ How do we support each other and respond to the challenges of social isolation and increasing family stress all exacerbated by Covid-19?

In partnership with the South Australian Dept of Human Services, Uniting Communities and families across South Australia, we’re rapidly prototyping a new service that supports families who are facing more complex and multiple challenges as they are now physically isolating to halt the spread of Covid-19.

We went into this project with a whole set of questions including:

  • How do we create authentic human connection and trust using digital platforms instead of face to face relationships?

  • Will there be enough people who want to volunteer and give back in the midst of so much social and economic change?

  • Will families want to be supported and connected to someone who isn’t from their local community?

  • How can we adapt what we know works in Family by Family and other scaffolded peer responses to a new digital model of support?

Online Virtual Village Volunteer training
Online Virtual Village Volunteer training

As the fourth week of live prototyping comes to an end we’ve challenged many of our assumptions and seen some common threads evolving:

  • Rural and regional families are keen for a ‘Virtual Village’ as it provides an opportunity to  keep their personal stories personal, something that is often a challenge;

  • The model presents a valuable addition to the service system families and services are saying it’s a much needed option of support to families who otherwise have limited ability to engage due to distance and physical distancing measures of Covid-19;

  • People and families want to have different ways to give back! In just 4 weeks we’ve had a total of 12 registered as interested in wanting to engage in this live test. The unifying driver is wanting to be able add value to their broader community and feel like they can make a difference.  The added benefit is that they are able to access their lived experience to create hope and action for other families.

We continue to test how to authentically connect digitally. One example is testing how mutual commitments are made across the Professional, Volunteer and Service User.  In other service models of Weavers and Family by Family, these commitments are standardised documents that are read separately by both volunteers and service users.  In Virtual Village we’re adapting this  by having each adult in the Virtual Village connection read out their intent, and we’ve heard:

“It felt really natural and so much better than a paper document.”

Jessica, Virtual Village volunteer

“ much nicer to hear the words from someone who will be supporting [me] than [reading it from a] document.”

Kathryn, Virtual Village family member

We have a hunch that in the same way Family by Family creates lasting change for both the service user and the volunteer family, Virtual Village will likely do the same. 

We’re keen to keep some key elements including the volunteer family reimbursement.  Administrative data from Family by Family suggests:

  • Volunteer reimbursements have supported many families who were living below the poverty line experience reduced financial stress after volunteering to be a Sharing Family;

  • Volunteer families benefit from the weekly training, coaching and mentoring the trained professional – Family Coach – provides. This often results in families increasing self-agency and transitioning into paid employment on the back of their experience in the program.

Children engaging in Kids Coaching, Family by Family
Children engaging in Kids Coaching, Family by Family

The next steps

We’re focusing on recruitment of families who want to be service users in the program and we’ll be testing and evolving the model, documenting how it’s changing lives. 

The next few weeks we’ll: 

  • Document the theory of change and practice theories that underpin the model 

  • Build out a web and social presence to help get more families to know about it and refer into the program.

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