Ann Osborn is the Chief Exec of the Rural Coffee Caravan in Suffolk. Here she talks about her drive to reduce rural isolation and loneliness and she’s looking forward to the community vehicles being kitted out with all manner of digital tech gadgets, ready for June
Ann Osborn is very aware that we live in a world which has become more and more digitally driven over the past year. But the CEO of the Rural Coffee Caravan, a small Suffolk charity which seeks to reduce rural isolation and loneliness with its free mobile café, is also aware that there are people that are going to be left behind. Which is why she and her team are pleased to be part of Suffolk County Council’s Suffolk 2020 project to kit out community vehicles to showcase a range of digital care options available to older or vulnerable residents. Both the Rural Coffee Caravan and Suffolk Family Carers have confirmed that they are onboard with signing up to participate in the scheme.
The Rural Coffee Caravan project started nearly 20 years ago, and was the brainchild of the Rev Canon Sally Fogden. Sally was manning a helpline in Suffolk for the Farm Crisis Network and felt very strongly that there was a need to do something to combat the stress of rural isolation.
Ann joined in 2004. She says of her own background: ‘I don’t even have A Levels – I would go off and travel, come back and waitress, go off and travel again.’ She then met her husband, bought a house in the country, and became full-time mum to four children – as well as a carer to older members of the family. Perfect ‘transferable skills’, in other words.
In the beginning, one ‘tin-pot’ caravan would visit rural communities in Mid Suffolk during the summer months. Then a campervan was added to the project, visiting village halls all year round.
And the project keeps growing, as Ann says: ‘We will take delivery of our fourth vehicle in May.’ Plus there are seven members of staff. She says of the team. ‘We are just a group of people who care about each other.’
Ann also introduced Meet Up Mondays to Suffolk, a network of pubs and cafes reducing loneliness with free tea and coffee and offering friendly chat. She admits she was inspired by the landlord of The Alexandra pub in south west London. ‘I’m a bit of a copycat,’ says Ann, ‘I saw that a guy in a pub in Wimbledon was doing it, on Twitter. I rang him up and had a chat to him about it.’
It launched here at the start of 2019, with the help of Community Action Suffolk’s Good Neighbour Scheme. ‘Nothing seemed to happen then suddenly, in April, five pubs in one go said they would love to give it a go,’ recalls Ann. By the start of 2020, 60 pubs/cafes in Suffolk and 40 elsewhere were signed up.
‘Then the pandemic happened, and they had to shut completely,’ says Ann. Some did Meet Up Mondays on Zoom, some did Facebook Live sessions, some did face to face conversations – at a two-metre distance.’ She is optimistic it will relaunch: ‘We are already hearing about quite a few coming back to us now.’
This time last year, the caravan, which normally goes out and about at the beginning of April, wasn’t about to go anywhere. Ann recalls: ‘We managed to keep everybody – we had one member of staff on furlough, but she came back in July of last year.’
The project kept connected with people online, not least with its ‘Isolation Inspiration and Information’ section. ‘We put a fantastic couple of pages on our website,’ says Ann. And the team somehow managed to keep the events calendar looking full. ‘We tried to be as upbeat and as empathetic as we could be.’
She is looking forward to the Rural Coffee Caravan taking part in Suffolk County Council’s mobile digital hub project. ‘By the time we start our visits again in June we will have four vehicles going out around rural Suffolk.
‘All our vehicles will be equipped with WIFI and have a range of simple helpful ‘techy’ gadgets on board for us to demonstrate and people to try in the friendly non-threatening environments our visits create. We hope to take any fears away and we can’t wait to get started.’
Gadgets will include a full ‘Alexa’ suite of talkback technology, a Ring Doorbell with video talkback capability, Droplet Mugs to support hydration, pressure sensor equipment, GPS trackers and Dementia Clocks.
Ann says: ‘The reason this is so important is that we are in a digital age – this is not going away. It’s going to keep moving forward and if you don’t keep up with it you are going to be left behind. That’s so evident in the pandemic. So many people have had to move online. It’s imperative that we get as many people to understand that this doesn’t have to be scary.’
For many of us, the ability to video call has been a lifeline. But Ann observes: ‘A lot of people we’ve met say ‘I’m not banking online; I’m not shopping online.’ Ann and the team are on a mission to help people see the benefits of joining the digital age, such as ‘showing people how they can easily switch energy supplier. We will have experts coming out with us at first. There’s a whole world of opportunity we can offer people.’
Between now and June, she says: ‘We will still be out and about – if someone wants us to go to a village for a chat. We have to be seen to be very responsible – most of the people who come to us are older.’
She says that there’s enough ‘soft’ evidence to know that they are making a difference to people in rural communities. ‘We can’t tell you how lonely they are unless they volunteer that.’ However, it would be fair to say that ‘a reasonable percentage of people who come to the Coffee Caravan are lonely. We know we are making a difference because we keep receiving invitations. If we only go to a village once we might have done an enormous amount of good in that couple of hours.’
(Picture credits: Steve Tanner)