AT a time when it can be difficult to see through the darkness, one group of volunteers is bringing a glimmer of light to hundreds of lives.

In the four months since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the UK, Oxford Mutual Aid has grown from a team of half a dozen friends to an army of more than 1,000 people.

The grassroots group has supported almost 600 households and makes 700 meals for the vulnerable every week through its Kitchen Collective scheme.

The numbers are impressive, but behind the figures is an array of people from all walks of life who simply want to help others.

Read also: Volunteers deliver 2,200 hot meals in one day

At the heart of that is Muireann Meehan Speed, one of the original team and part of the five-strong oversight committee that runs Oxford Mutual Aid.

But the Headington resident insists none of it would be possible without the compassion she has witnessed first-hand.

“It’s easy to be cynical at a time like this, but people really have come together to support each other,” she says.

“Whether it’s van drivers or chefs, people want to work together. It’s just about how much time they can commit.

“It’s a real cross-section of people from the community, with different skills, experience and expertise.”

Read also: Spate of coronavirus cases at Cowley's MINI plant

Oxford Mutual Aid was born when a group of friends with experience of supporting vulnerable communities saw the crisis would leave many people at risk.

Created at the start of March - just a few days after the virus claimed its first British victim - the operation soon expanded.

The group used its contacts with food banks and charities across Oxfordshire and benefitted from the wave of goodwill that saw 250,000 people sign up for the NHS volunteer scheme in its first 24 hours.

It means Oxford Mutual Aid now boasts almost 50 core volunteers and dozens of delivery drivers, who handle more than 50 requests for help every day.

Read also: Hospital worker slams lack of social distancing at city Tesco

Nowhere better illustrates this progression than St Alban’s Church Hall in East Oxford, where food, toiletries, clothing and more is stored before being sent out in parcels.

The steady increase in donations means the building is full to the brim and the group will be upsizing to the nearby St Mary & St John Church this weekend.

Ms Speed, 32, puts this success down to a willingness to engage with individuals, charities and businesses, who are only too happy to provide support.

“If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” she says.

“There are so many people that are willing to help, but sometimes we aren’t talking to people as much as we should.

“Covid created that space where people began cooperating with each other.”

Read also: Oxford group calls on government to end child poverty in city

This is showcased by Oxford Mutual Aid’s Kitchen Collective, which supplies cooked food to the elderly, homeless people in temporary accommodation and children who would normally receive free school meals.

The group has partnered up with organisations across the city, including Cherwell Boathouse, University College and the King’s Centre.

It is a complicated operation that requires chefs with spaces to cook and drivers with vans to transport food.

There have been some headaches – after one chef was unable to continue last month it left a shortfall of 350 meals.

Read also: Oxford coronavirus vaccine begins trial in Brazil

But Ms Speed, a former Oxford University student, is delighted with how people have continually stepped up and filled the void.

“It has really engaged community activism and support and that’s why we’ve been able to grow the way we have,” she says.

“For that family or that individual you’re delivering to it really makes a big difference.”

The group’s potential was shown by its part in May’s Grand Iftar, where different communities break a day’s fast during Ramadan.

Lockdown restrictions meant the communal feast could not take place in person, but Oxford Mutual Aid, alongside a host of other organisations, delivered 2,200 meals in one day.

The group is now looking to become more sustainable by submitting grant applications and incorporating as a community interest company, to ensure all donations are spent according to its aims and objectives.

Although lockdown restrictions are easing, it is clear the economic impact of coronavirus will be felt for some time.

But after a whirlwind few months where she has barely had a chance to catch her breath, Ms Speed hopes this is only the start for Oxford Mutual Aid.

“The future’s going to be challenging, because people are going back to work and a lot of people are tired,” she says.

“But if we can get into that mentality of solidarity we have the opportunity to build something.

“I’ve met a lot of amazing people that are going to be friends for life.”