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How the pandemic pushed us to evolve our services


Bala Thakrar is the head of operations for our Community Development and Wellbeing team, which runs health, wellbeing and learning services to help improve the lives of local people. She has a rich background in supporting communities across the world, and joined Poplar HARCA just before the pandemic hit.

Here, Bala shares how she’s proud to make a difference and explores how the coronavirus outbreak pushed the team to find innovative new ways to support our communities.

“I’m responsible for making sure that all of our community centres run safely and securely, and that we deliver good quality programmes for local residents. The community in Poplar and Bow is diverse, so I want to make sure that everything we do is inclusive.

We don’t have a huge budget so our programmes must offer real value for money. Our team does research and consultation in the local area to see what the current needs are, and works in close partnership with colleagues and other organisations to deliver specialist services.

We offer a fantastic range of activities to help local people improve both their mental and physical health, such as nutrition and healthy cooking classes, women-only aerobics, Karate, mindful walks, and arm chair exercises for older people, as well as coffee mornings, book clubs, and ‘knit & natter’ drop in sessions. We give people a place to come and make social connections.”

"During the pandemic, the role of our centres became even more important as they sit at the heart of our communities. In the first lockdown, we turned some of them into food banks and community kitchens, and recruited a number of new volunteers to help deliver food parcels to those who couldn’t afford to buy groceries."

“School and homeworking went online, but many of our residents didn’t have laptops or internet connections. So we gave out over 200 laptops to local families, and delivered digital skills classes to help older people get online and stay connected with their families.

We also helped women who couldn’t find milk powder for their babies, and supported those suffering from heightened domestic violence caused by the lockdown.”

"It made me feel very proud to be part of an organisation that can make a difference, and I realise how fortunate I am to be able to have a positive impact on people’s lives. It showed me that we can be creative and innovative in the way we support our communities."

“I’m also just so grateful for my team. We were all a bit numb during the first few months of the pandemic, running on adrenaline and energy. It definitely took a toll on our emotions as we were seeing the rawness of human vulnerability, but everyone pulled together to support each other.

To do this work, you do need to have empathy. I enjoy working with people, and community development is something I’ve always loved. After graduating, my first job was working with the British Refugee Council, resettling Kurdish refugees. I also helped to set up the first housing association for Asian people with disabilities, and then worked for the Voluntary Services Overseas for 14 years, doing community development work in Ghana and India. I was based in England, but worked closely with dynamic women and human rights groups in urban and rural India.

I now live in London, and love my role at Poplar HARCA. It’s a very diverse and dynamic organisation to work for. It also recognises and values its staff, and offers lots of opportunities to develop. Staff of all roles and levels play a part in supporting the wider community.

My work can be challenging at times, but it’s also really rewarding. I can see the difference that we make – and that’s what keeps me coming back!”

"We can’t turn people into millionaires or cure their health problems, but our centres and cafes truly bring communities together. People can come here, have a cup of tea and a chat, and watch the world go by – how lovely is that?"

“There’s lots of exciting things coming up at our community centres over the next couple of months, and we’re particularly looking forward to hosting some celebrations across the Queen’s Jubilee bank holiday weekend in June.

As well as a delivering a full programme of events, we also have to be on the lookout for any new hurdles that may arise. Our work is very reactive and it definitely keeps me on my toes. But if we can deal with a global pandemic and come out even stronger, we can deal with anything!”