For the Jewish Chronicle published December 8 2017
“We have”, says Bayla Perrin, “a wonderful community. But you only have to cast your eyes around, just a little, to see that not everything is perfect.”
Six years ago, Perrin and her fellow trustee, Benjamin Conway, were inspired to set up one of Anglo-Jewry’s lowest-profile, but ultimately most effective, charities, the Paperweight Trust. It operates on a single guiding principle: it’s there to help when life becomes too much for some to manage.
Both Perrin and Conway were initially drawn to help bereaved people, who not only faced dealing with the loss of their lifelong partner, but also found themselves in difficulties when it came to dealing with the everyday practicalities of carrying on without them. “We could see there was a gap in the market,” says Conway. “People needed help and didn’t know what to do”.
Miriam (not her real name), is a typical example. “My darling husband had been declining in health over several years, and we had often discussed that he had never shown me how the household bills were paid, how to complete various forms and what payments came and went from our bank accounts. I supposed that, in putting off the day when we finally sat down at the kitchen table, this would also somehow delay the onset of the slowing down of his mental processes.
“But then, without really noticing, it was clear that he had passed the point where paperwork had any relevance. That, combined with increasingly frequent trips to doctors and then hospitals, culminating in his death three months ago, meant that we never really had that discussion. I knew I was in trouble”.
After her husband’s death, Miriam felt “alone, frightened, insecure and very worried. There was a growing pile of envelopes that had been mounting for months and were now begging for my attention”.
She began to put the envelopes in a drawer where she couldn’t see them, but when a call from her electricity supplier came, insisting on speaking to her husband, Miriam told a friend that she wasn’t coping. The friend put her in touch with Paperweight and a caseworker came to see her.
As Benjamin Conway explains, all too often the utility companies, or banks, or insurance firms, which are sending the bills, simply want to know that they are not being ignored. When a Paperweight caseworker arrives, usually they explain to the client that they will deal with the companies directly. Sometimes, as in Miriam’s case, what is required is a letter of authority from the client and a copy of the late partner’s death certificate, allowing the caseworker to sort through the bills and assemble some order of priority.
But it’s not just burgeoning bills which frighten people. “One of our first clients”, remembers Perrin, “ — her husband had died two weeks earlier, and she had been left with just £18 in her bank account. She was being hounded by creditors, but the thing which eventually threw her was a burial grant form from the local authority —which was 36 pages long. She didn’t know where to start.”
Nothing in Conway’s or Perrin’s own backgrounds suggests that they were destined to embark on this extraordinary but necessary exercise in communal hand-holding. Both religiously observant — though they are at pains to stress that they deal with people of all levels of faith and none — Conway works in property while Perrin previously worked in the editorial department of a publishing company.
But they were aware of a level of professional expertise in the community, from accountants to lawyers to financial advisers. “What we said to these people was, use your expertise to help people”. Perrin says: “It wasn’t that Benjy and I felt that we could do all these things. But the idea was to garner the expertise within the community and get them to use that as volunteers.”
Paperweight began its work helping about eight people, but in the past six years, its client list has grown to more than 700. There are 111 volunteers on the Paperweight books, men and women whose life experience allows them to give a little back, and there are no paid employees. The charity works primarily within the Jewish community and receives referrals from other charities and local authorities.
Caseworkers, say Perrin and Conway, “should have common sense, be confident and not afraid of bureaucracy. If they are happy to deal with the suit at the end of the line, that will work”.
The charity primarily deals with “big issues — rising personal debt, divorce, illness, dementia, the need to rely on welfare benefits.” Effectively, Paperweight is taking up the slack where the government should be in place, something which Perrin and Conway wryly acknowledge. “The government talks about these issues all the time,” says Perrin, “but it doesn’t do much.”
The people helped by Paperweight range in age “from 19 to 99.” And there have been significant successes; in one case, a client was refunded £135,000 and, in another, an elderly man’s home insurance fee “suddenly” plummeted from more than £800 to just £178 after intervention from a Paperweight caseworker.
The referrals come from other charities and councils, as well as people who come forward themselves. But, in Esther’s case, she was introduced by her Jewish Care social worker.
She was a single woman in her late 50s, living in an inner London council estate. “Esther’s mental health was deteriorating with early onset dementia. The social worker wished Paperweight to assist her family to register Power of Attorney [POA],” the Paperweight pair explain.
“Because of issues of distance, complexities with their own circumstances and other matters, the POA forms were not completed in time for Esther to be declared fit to agree”.
Her cognitive skills were rapidly deteriorating and she panicked about every piece of post that arrived, and would accidentally discard important letters.
So Paperweight arranged a post diversion to its offices. “Now all Esther’s correspondence is opened, junk mail is discarded and important papers are scanned and forwarded, as appropriate, to her Jewish Care and local authority social workers, her subcontracted care- providing company, her GP and her neurologist, as well as a team of her friends and supporters, and her bank. And even the bank staff will now speak to the Paperweight caseworker before anyone else”.
Paperweight sends its caseworkers in for between a month and six months at a time — “we’re not looking to be there for longer”, says Conway. On the other hand, as time has gone on, the charity has seen the need to diversify its services, and now is offering Paperlight, enabling clients to receive advice on a longer-term basis.
Additionally, the charity, which is beginning to take on clients in Manchester as well as its core base in London, now runs a specialist Family Law Support and Advocacy Unit, which offers support for clients who are unable to afford lawyers. “We didn’t realise the breadth of what people needed. “Unfortunately, the rise of divorce in the community has led to the creation of this service, which is run by Arlene Barc and David Taylor — it takes place here at our [Hendon] offices every Monday”.
Daphne and Victoria, again not their real names, are just two of the cases helped by Barc and Taylor.
Daphne, 42, was married to Colin for 20 years. The couple had two teenage children. Daphne became a client of Paperweight after she divorced Colin; after a traumatic end to a violent marriage, she had moved away from north-west London. Her new address was only disclosed to the family courts.
But to her horror, Colin found her new address and his solicitor started writing to her about reducing her spousal maintenance. It was then that she contacted Paperweight.
When the caseworker first met Daphne “she was a scared and frightened woman. We assisted in composing numerous letters to Colin’s solicitor, seeking information as well as replying to very bullish letters from them.
“Daphne needed proof of Colin’s ‘reduced income’ and he was very evasive — but Paperweight managed to help obtain this essential information”.
“Paperweight saved my life”, says Daphne. “They helped me through a very difficult time with the utmost professionalism, and at the same time showed empathy and care”.
Another client, Victoria, was married to Jeremy, a wealthy businessman, for two years. They have one daughter. But the marriage broke down. The caseworker reported: “Jeremy was controlling both financially and at home. He didn’t allow her to see her friends socially and she became isolated from her family”.
Victoria had no money of her own and could not afford solicitors’ fees. She had no idea where to start.
But Paperweight supported her through her divorce and applications for maintenance, additionally making necessary referrals to other organisations which could help her.
She told Perrin and Conway: “It’s incredible and beyond my wildest expectations. Arlene [Barc] has helped me so much with such kindness, sensitivity and patience. And I never even knew such an organisation existed.
“I have literally been transformed from a state of oppression, isolation, dejection and tears, into one of confidence and feeling really loved and cared for. One cannot overestimate the positive effect this has on a person or the greatness of such kindness. I didn’t realise we had such hidden, righteous, people in our community”.