A community group tackling social isolation in County Durham goes from strength to strength. PETER BARRON pays a visit...

HOW nice it is to see that the bonds of friendship grow ever stronger in the lovely group launched as a masterstroke in the days when Eunice Smith was working as a health care assistant.

I first wrote about Friends Together in 2018 after Eunice, who worked at North House Surgery, in Crook, decided to do something positive in response to the number of people she saw suffering from loneliness and social isolation in the local area.

She set up the Friends Together group, meeting on Thursday mornings at Crook Community Leisure Centre, and it was an instant hit. From an initial membership of six people, the numbers quickly grew and, within a year, the group was celebrating its first marriage proposal when a 74-year-old charmer, called Bill, went down on one knee and popped the question to a 79-year-old lady called Ci.

Now, four years after it was launched, the group is not only still going strong on Thursdays, but there’s a Monday group too, with members coming not just from Crook but surrounding communities.

“After Covid, the demand just grew because people had suffered from increased social isolation,” explains Eunice, who has retired from her job as a health care assistant to focus fully on Friends Together.

“We found we were needed more than ever, but the Thursday group was full, so we decided to add a Monday group, and that’s got a healthy membership too.”

Eunice has the loyal support of former primary school teacher, Susan Hall, as secretary, and there’s also a dedicated band of volunteers, who serve teas, coffees, and food, as well as arranging entertainment, quizzes, and presentations. (I was delighted to be invited recently to speak - for a third time - to the members ahead of their game of bingo.)

Trips out are also part of the successful formula, and the members are already looking forward to seeing classic musical, White Christmas, at Sunderland Empire next month. A Christmas party is also on the agenda.

In addition, members can attend invaluable talks to get advice on how to avoid scams, use of computers, and obtain financial help if they get into difficulties.

“The energy crisis is a massive worry for a lot of them but we’re here to help where we can,” adds Eunice.

Nicola O’Neil, from nearby Howden-le-Wear, is the Monday group’s newest member, and she’s already feeling at home after her first meeting. She’d been caring for her autistic son, but when he was ready to live independently, she was left on her own.

“I suddenly felt very isolated and a nurse at my GP’s practice suggested I should join a group of some kind.

"Friends Together came highly recommended and, as soon as I came through the door, I was made to feel very welcome. It’s such a friendly group, with a lovely mix of people, and I’ll definitely be coming back.

“It shouldn’t have to be that someone’s feeling desperate before they discover that help is out there, so I’d recommend this to anyone who’s feeling isolated.”

The next step for the group is to apply to become a registered charity, so it can go on meeting the increasing demand for overcoming loneliness. Hopefully, other forms of official recognition will come their way too.

In the meantime, Eunice, Susan, and all the Friends Together volunteers should take a bow for a job well done.

  • Friends Together meets on Mondays and Thursdays from 10.45am to 12.45pm. To find out more about the group, search for Friends Together on Facebook or contact Susan Hall at susan@rksnet.co.uk