Grassroots work builds stronger, healthier communities

If you’re a parent from the Polish or Eastern European communities in Wandsworth or Merton, there’s a weekly event you might find helpful.

It’s the Friday morning play group at Colliers Wood Community Centre on the border between the two boroughs. Each Friday, between 10am and 12noon, the centre becomes a meeting place for parents with their toddlers and babies.

A wonderful opportunity for people to get to know each other and make friends

While specifically for young Polish and Eastern European parents, it’s open to everyone, and is a wonderful opportunity for people to get to know each other and make friends. Run by the Polish Family Association, the playgroup has been a popular fixture for parents (all mums so far) in Merton for many years. It is funded by a range of organisations including Merton Council, the NHS in Merton, and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ Community Vaccine Champions Programme.

Since its work was extended to Wandsworth in April, attendance has soared with almost 40% of mums now coming from across the borough border. But the playgroup is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to activities and support run by the Polish Family Association.

“The Association was set up in 2007 to support Poles and East Europeans across Merton,” says its CEO Slawek Szczepanski (main image). “To begin with we were just helping Polish parents to access services. Since 2011, we have been engaging with all Eastern Europeans.

“We’ve found mums from the East European and Polish communities in Wandsworth have been so keen to engage with local services and were pleased we were reaching out.”

The Polish Family Association has played a pivotal role in supporting Ukrainian refugees

Around 37,000 Eastern Europeans live in Merton and Wandsworth. Polish people form the largest section of the population – around 22,000 – with Bulgarians, Romanians and Latvians making up most of the rest. In recent months, the Polish Family Association has also played a pivotal role in welcoming and supporting Ukrainian refugees. The 200 plus trucks of aid sent to Ukraine have been largely facilitated through the Association working with Merton Council.

“One of our main roles is helping people to access the NHS,” Slawek says. “Many Poles were apprehensive because of bad experience with the health services in Poland. This makes people reluctant to register with GPs, which means they go straight to A&E as they do in Poland.

We run workshops to tell people about how the NHS works

“This was a big challenge during the COVID pandemic because people did not know where to turn for support. We run workshops to tell people how the NHS works, especially the provision of mental health services, which is much more supportive than back home. This means that people get the best out of services and are using the NHS appropriately.”

The association has also played a key role in helping Eastern Europeans deal with the EU Settlement process after Brexit. It arranged digital ID scans and provided a complete support package from initial application to completion, including appeals, which is still ongoing.

“We served as a key connection in the community for many people who hardly spoke any English,” Slawek says. “For instance, because Polish children don’t start school until they are seven, many parents didn’t know they had to send their children to school at four.”

Wandsworth Council became involved with the initiative earlier this year after seeing the benefits it was bringing to Eastern European and Polish communities in Merton. A £23,000 grant from central government is funding the work, which is expected to benefit around 300 Wandsworth families.

Pippa Bagnall, the Safer and Stronger Communities Project Manager for Wandsworth Council, said: “The new partnership has been an exciting development between Polish and other Eastern European communities, and health professionals. Communities suffered badly during the COVID pandemic but this new engagement with local agencies is proving to be very beneficial.

“The Polish Family Association has built successful relationships through community outreach work. We are really pleased that they are bringing their expertise to Wandsworth.”

The champions will be a valuable link between the NHS and community groups

In the coming months, Slawek and his colleagues at the Polish Family Association will be using some of the additional funding from Wandsworth Council to take part in the borough’s growing network of health champions.

Trainee health champion, Kamila Dyczko (below), said: “I think the champions will be a valuable link between the NHS and community groups. We want people to be better informed about how to access services, vaccination and testing.

“Because the health champions will be known and trusted figures in the community this will give them much greater credibility. I think the Polish Family Association has the tools in place to really make a difference to people in Wandsworth.“