Covid, a year in reflection

The 17th of March 2021 saw me (along with hundreds of others) receive my first Covid vaccination, coincidentally, on the same day as my very new rescue dog got her canine vaccinations. I also had a meeting with our legal team reviewing the contracts for our newly re-launched online Workplace Choices programmes and I joined our online young adult programme – now one of four programmes running, for the session on examining and improving their personal core beliefs.

What a contrast to St Patrick’s day 2020 which saw me boarding the last rescue flight out of the Spanish state of emergency that had been declared whilst I was in the air on the way there, four days previously. In case you were wondering - the trip itself had been a last-minute emergency one to see my very ill brother before the potentially lethal pandemic wreaked the worst of its destruction.

I was flooded with relief as I set foot on the Passenger Boarding Bridge for the flight back home, in the wake of virtually all flight suspensions. Then my phone rang. It was one of my trainers informing me that we would ourselves have to suspend all our training programmes due to the immediate closure of our offices and training room. I only had time to say – “we will carry on and we will make virtual delivery work”. It was out of the question that we would abandon our candidates at the hour of their greatest need.

First thing the next morning, I gained access to our offices, collected up our computers and laptops and ensured they were delivered to all staff to maintain a seamless service for our clients. Another of our trainers was enlisted to head up our transition to virtual delivery. She rose to the occasion transforming our materials, puzzles and learning games into an effective online format. Zoom was installed, a consultant/project manager engaged, and emergency funding sought.

Ensuring the ongoing efficacy of our programmes was of primary concern, and SurveyMonkey ably provided the proof we needed as we went along to show how well our psychological outcomes had performed, continuing to provide life and mental health transformations.

Our programme modules were uploaded to a Teachable online learning platform so candidates missing sessions, could catch up at their leisure. Additional laptops and internet access ensured that the most disadvantaged candidates were able to access the sessions remotely.

Softphones were installed on laptops so that one-to-one mentoring conversations could be recorded for safeguarding purposes.

All of this was made possible by the generosity of our existing funders, and in particular the National Lottery Community Foundation, who not only gave us emergency funding to transition our adult programmes online but provided additional and significant core funding for back-office structures. The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Community Foundation (HIWCF) also came to our aid, as did The Quilter Foundation enabling us to transition our youth and teenage programmes successfully online.

Well, that is the factual nuts and bolts story but behind the scenes there were some very emotional and intense highs and lows. The biggest question probably is what drove us on whilst other charities and organisations were busy furloughing people, planning redundancies and sitting tight until the supposedly relatively quick return to normal?

Well, it all started with a vision. The trustees put aside an evening in January 2017 to debate and develop a new vision for the charity moving away from a city centre vision empowering faith groups to reach their communities which had in recent years proved to be limiting at best and frustrating at worst. The new vision was bold, limitless, expansive, and daring. New was a nationwide reach, partnerships with large mainstream providers and offered to anyone in need of our mental health interventions, not just the unemployed, deprived, and disadvantaged. In fact, reconnecting anyone who wanted to and had lost their way, with their own potential.

A name change from SAFE (Southampton Action for Employment) to Safe NEW FUTURES complete with new logo and management restructure brought this forward-thinking philosophy to the heart of the organisation and public perception.

However, as we all know – a vision does not magically become reality. With extremely limited resources and ability to actually migrate to an online, large scale, national and mainstream delivery, I was feeling less than optimistic three years later in January 2020, having tried very hard without much success to make it happen. An ingrained culture and external norms assuming that the kind of life change we were producing could only come by face-to-face mentoring, lunches/hospitality, and physical delivery of training was proving very difficult to overcome, not to mention the lack of any budget at all to move the vision forward.

For us, help came in the form of the pandemic. This was not a crisis for us but a golden opportunity! Staff worked tirelessly, and each day during those first three months was an endurance test. Communication, communication, communication proved a key. Daily morning briefings that regularly lasted two hours covered everything from the urgent need of the day to the emotional wellbeing of each person. We tried to celebrate the small successes but more often found ourselves sharing the frustrations and problems.

Yes, it required innovation, tenacity, resilience, dogged determination, and teamwork to get us to where we are today – ready to expand nationwide, move into other markets and continuing to transform futures by overcoming the past, managing the present and enabling people to take control of their futures. However, it also took a vision that had been articulated and held on to through the years, a willingness to take risks and jump into the unknown and the foresight to realise that a worldwide pandemic was never going to be a six-week blip in the natural order of things. How glad we are today instead of basking on the glorious 2020 spring sunshine we went into overdrive, took the hard road, which today is becoming more like a highway, to lead us into a future we once only dreamed of!

Moving to a national online programme Group Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (GCBT) based programme will continue to require pioneering innovation and continuing to respond appropriately to the consequences of the pandemic.

In particular – we now wish to also engage those who are feeling ISOLATED or LONELY perhaps care-leavers or elderly or people who have experienced violence or abuse or simply just on their own working from home. This will mean engaging meaningful partnerships with health providers such as the NHS and large employers.

We also wish to address the needs of young people feeling disorientated and demotivated by the current uncertainty and educational disruption. Many studies are already reporting surges in levels of loneliness, anxiety and depression. We wish to enable these young people to engage with their strengths and develop the resilience they need, as well as employability skills, to help them go into the job market with fresh eyes and renewed enthusiasm to overcome the struggles they are up against and find fulfilment.

With reference to specific nuts and bolts, our plan is to start with geographical areas where staff are based eg. Northampton, Kent, Bristol, North London and Dorset, alongside developing new partners who have national contacts and reach.

So, not only has the pandemic made it possible for me to become a dog owner again, but also to be part of this exciting move extending the reach of our life transforming programmes. Again, I extend our grateful thanks to all our funders for making all this possible. You have our deepest gratitude and appreciation.

Nina Kelly (CEO)