VOLUNTEERS in the Forest have been more important than ever during the pandemic and the sector is now finally getting the recognition it deserves, says the CEO of the Forest Voluntary Action Forum (FVAF) Chris Brown.

FVAF, now in its fifth year, has grown "massively" during the last 18 months and continues to expand, with the organisation having played a vital role in facilitating the community response to the pandemic in the district.

The team supports a range of voluntary groups and services - including local food banks, sustainability initiatives and youth engagement projects - in a number of ways, from helping them secure funding to "strengthening" communication between groups and facilitating the sharing of resources.

Chris says the importance of organisations like FVAF has come into greater focus since the start of pandemic, with governing bodies now recognising their value to the community, which in turn has led to an increase in funding for the sector.

"We’ve always known the value of organisations like ourselves in bringing people together, making better use of resources and being advocates for the sector, but it probably wasn’t until the pandemic struck that commissioners and fund holders realised just how reliant they were on communities for the benefit of people’s health and wellbeing, connectiveness and social cohesion", he said.

"All that having been highlighted in the last few years has led them to step back and think - ’we need to better support this’. It’s not just about buildings, buying equipment and the really tangible, obvious stuff, because a lot needs to happen in between - people need to be ready for all of that."

Among the projects FVAF has facilitated during the pandemic is the Community Connectors Forum, which is an online network which allows individuals from voluntary groups and services to come together to discuss common themes, such as how to involve the right stakeholders, or ensure community participation in decision making.

"Because we have no real service bias, we’re really well placed to bring all those partners together to have open and frank conversations about what the community is looking for", said the forum’s Volunteering and Projects Manager and Coleford Mayor, Nick Penny.

Chris says the forum has also played an important advocacy role for the Forest in communicating with county-wide organisations such as the county council and the NHS Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG).

"We’ve gone to those organisations and said ’this is the impact on the community, this what Forest residents are facing at the moment’", he said.

"That voice previously wasn’t there. As a result we have seen more resource being put into the area, which we’ve benefited from by being able to recruit more staff, but also we’ve been able to direct that out to the organisations that need it."

The forum itself has grown from having one part time staff member in its first year to what will soon be 24 team members, with three new roles currently being advertised and more likely to become available in the near future.

Chris said: "It’s really exciting from our perspective to go on this journey from having one part time employee to being a major employer in Cinderford."

The team are looking to recruit a new Community Builder, a Navigator Developer for county-wide employability project GEM, and a full time Communications and Fundraising Manager, which Chris says they’ve been longing for since the forum was established five years ago.

Chris and Nick were also excited to tentatively share the news that the acquisition of new premises for the forum is increasingly on the cards.

The pair say the new premises, which they hope to announce the location of soon, will act as a community hub for the organisations it supports as well as helping to facilitate the growth of the forum.

For more information about FVAF and the roles available, go to www.fvaf.org.uk.