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21 November 2018 | Wales

Pontrilas post office

Inspirational couple bringing community together in fight against rural isolation via the local post office and village shop.

Superwoman Sonya Cary is leading the fight against rural isolation from her base - a post office and shop in Pontrilas on the Welsh border.

Her days are spent organising therapy sessions for dementia patients, lunches for lonely pensioners or taking the incapacitated to hospital. Recently she took one elderly gent to Birmingham to help fix his hearing and then raced back to welcome customers to the dementia-friendly arts and crafts café.

Sonya, 60, and her husband Nigel, 52, use the post office as a base to run their social enterprise CARE, which supports more than 100 residents who no longer drive and have no family to help them.

Nestled between the Wye Valley and the border of Wales, their community hub is located in Herefordshire's idyllic Golden Valley. But although the landscape is beautiful, life can be extremely isolating for this farming community.

“If you can’t drive you are totally stuck,” explained Sonya. “All the nearest services are over the A465 – the doctor’s surgery, the school, the pub. It might as well be the River Amazon.”

Official statistics back up her view. A major study published last year by the Local Government Association and Public Health England found the elderly are hardest hit by social isolation and an inability to access support services in rural areas.

"Rural social networks are breaking down with a consequent increase in social isolation and loneliness, especially among older people," the report said.

But in Pontrilas, a vibrant community spirit is helping to keep loneliness at bay. Sonya and Nigel, who have a charity background, took on the post office four years ago. “The post office and shop actually closed and we immediately realised what a devastating impact it was going to have on the local community. We had to step up.

“Then we had a lightbulb moment that we could keep the post office and shop open while using it as a hub to address the immediate needs of the local community. Our mission is to combat isolation which causes ill-health and promote wellbeing.”

And so, with just £1,000, they took it on - and have already tripled the post office’s turnover. There have been steep learning curves, not least that Sonya had to train as a postmaster, but the difference they have made to so many lives is immeasurable.

They have turned the old sorting office into a tea room holding lunch clubs for the elderly and regular whist drives. On Christmas Day they welcomed 14 residents for lunch.

Another example of their brilliant work is their innovative prescription delivery scheme. After speaking to a local GP they arranged for volunteers to drop vital medication to patients. The volunteers also provide a friendly face to isolated locals to might not see anyone week to week.

Sonya and Nigel have made themselves indispensable. There is nothing they won’t try and do for the 3,000 local residents. “I open bank accounts, fill in forms, take people to hospital and also sort out home improvements for those who can’t. I’ll get a call that someone’s boiler is broken or they need something fixing. I know everyone here, so will make sure someone goes along.”

After taking on the post office in 2014 it soon became clear they needed more room. So they took the lease on an adjacent warehouse. At the start of November they proudly opened the Golden Valley Health & Wellbeing Hub. It cost £20,000 and the couple have spent many hours raising the funding to get to this point.

The weekly lunches for the elderly are held in here. They also hold a clinic inside where specialist podiatrists and holistic massage therapists treat both patients and their carers. The couple have also leased an adjoining warehouse, and plan to start an active ageing fitness class in there.

And they have no intention of slowing down. Sonya adds: “My kids shake their heads and say ‘what on earth are you doing’. But I can’t help myself. I see it as my mission to help. For the first time in my life I am perfectly content.”

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