Meet the unsung heroes of lockdown

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Meet the unsung heroes of lockdown

How virtual volunteers are making a profound difference during the pandemic.

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

Eliana Wolf, Chai volunteers, Laurie at Norwood and Linda De Rose
Eliana Wolf, Chai volunteers, Laurie at Norwood and Linda De Rose

‘I love learning from others’

Like other volunteers of the Shabbat Walking Group, 18-year-old Eliana Wolf looked forward to regularly chatting with residents and playing bingo at Jewish Care’s Sidney Corob House in West Hampstead, which looks after people with mental health needs. Since lockdown began at the end of March, such visits have become virtual.

Eliana says: “I’ve been volunteering for four years, because I wanted to give back to the community and it was something I could do with my friends. But it became much more than that – it allowed me to learn from people with greater life experiences than me.

Eliana Wolf, 18

“I like seeing the joy of the residents and hearing their stories. It’s wonderful when the residents tell us what they have done that week and helped me gain an appreciation of the life I am blessed to have.

“Since lockdown, we try to have a Zoom call each Friday, where we get to hear about how they have been keeping busy. It has been more challenging than usual on a video call, but it is also fantastic to see how excited the residents are talking to people they do not see every day.

“Volunteering brings me joy, as well as the person to whom I’m giving my time. It is like a magnifying glass: the more joy they feel, the greater my satisfaction that I could brighten up someone’s day.”

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‘They can join in – wherever they are’

Virtual volunteers with JBD – Julie Power

Julie Power loved going into Jewish Blind & Disabled’s facilities every week to run armchair exercise classes for the residents – and still does so over Zoom. She says: “It’s been really successful actually, because whereas I might have had only a few people join in before, now it doesn’t matter which facility they are in. They can all do it together.

“People can do similar exercises by watching a YouTube video, but it’s far more interactive this way. I can see them on my screen and can constantly give feedback and they can see and hear what I’m saying. If someone is not doing an exercise correctly, or needs encouragement, I’m able to focus on that person, just as I would if we were all together in
the same room.

“A service like this has been vital, because a lot of them to begin with weren’t even going out for a walk or anything and it’s really important that they try to keep mobile during lockdown.

“Although it’s been virtual, I still feel that I’ve been able to build up
a rapport with them, which has been really nice and everyone really looks forward to the next session.”

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‘Going virtual has been invaluable’

Norwood’s Laurie has really taken to his online chats with volunteers

Since lockdown began, around 250 people have signed up to become volunteers with Norwood, which looks after vulnerable children and their families, children with special educational needs and people with learning disabilities and autism.

Volunteering manager Sharon Bradman says: “Since March, we’ve been running quizzes, bingo, chair-based exercises, concerts and karaoke online and are looking at starting up a cookery club as well.

“We were fortunate before lockdown that we had volunteers who could visit our residential homes and supported our clients in that way, so there was never a need for Zoom sessions, but we can see this situation lasting for at least the next few months.

“Having a conversation over the telephone can be more tricky with someone who has a learning disability, so using something like Zoom or What’s App, where you can see each other, is much better.

“For the people we support, it has been invaluable. In fact, virtual sessions are now something Norwood is very much looking to continue
and grow.”

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‘It’s been a real lifeline’

Emma Reynolds

At a time when people are being asked to isolate and keep their distance, the impact on people already dealing with mental health issues can be immense. Jami has organised doorstep chats and food deliveries for those who are shielding, but going virtual has also made a real difference.

Emma Reynolds, compeer volunteering manager at Jami, says: “Jami was really quick to move all of its services virtually, including the four hubs run by the charity and the Head Room café. Our volunteers were all moved over to virtual roles and we’ve been able to provide sharing circles, support groups and even a poetry reading night.

“It’s been really important that we’ve been able to provide those social connections, especially a time when everybody’s so distanced, and that’s made a real difference to people.

“Many of our volunteers have also moved into befriending roles and are calling people up on a regular basis.

“We’ve also provided IT support, because so many people are reliant on the internet and emails at this time.

“Our café has seen more participants joining in than we had before lockdown, which is incredible.

“We’ve had a rise in referrals for our services, but also more volunteers signing up, because people are understanding the effects of loneliness and isolation on those with mental illness.

“Being able to give people social connection, especially those shielding on their own, has been a real lifeline.”

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‘We are like a family’

Chai’s virtual volunteers: Ann Stanton, Andee Roback, Lynne Silver and Barbara-Freedman

Fifteen years ago, Lynne Silver, Barbara Freedman and Andee Roback helped set up a Wednesday social group for people supported by Chai Cancer Care, featuring entertainers, music and guest speakers. Determined not to let their clients down, the trio turned to Zoom to carry on their weekly meetings.

Lynne explains: “During the regular year, we have quizzes, choirs, dancers and magicians. The main point of our afternoon was to provide a bit of a break from cancer. We would normally get around 30 people each week and have become like a family.

“They talk to each other about when someone is going through treatment or having a bad week, a good week, or how their family is coping and so on. If we didn’t see people that week, we would ensure we phoned them.

“When lockdown came along, we thought we would give Zoom a go and
now we love using it. Last week, around 40 people joined to listen to Esther Rantzen and, in a few weeks’ time, we will have magician Nicholas Einhorn.

“We would normally have taken a break for six weeks over the summer, but decided we would carry on every week until we come out of lockdown.

“When we go onto Zoom, it’s amazing to see everyone’s reaction when they see each other. Many have been taken away from family right at the point when they need family.

“I don’t know what everyone would do if we hadn’t decided to do this. I just feel there would have been such a lacking in everyone’s life.

“After one session, one of our clients wrote to say how ‘our alone time and sadnesses all turned into huge smiles. I am filled with joy and feel the happiest I’ve felt all week’.

“No one does voluntary work for a thank you, they do it for the feeling it gives you – and I feel extremely privileged to do this.”

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‘A video call can make such a difference’

Linda De Rose, 68 has been a virtual befriender

Jewish Care’s befriending service has rapidly expanded over the past 13 weeks, with 80 volunteers now signed up to stay in touch with 213 clients.

Among them is Linda De Rose, 68, who has volunteered for 20 years as a befriender. While previously she went in person to care homes, now her visits take place virtually and over the phone.

She says: “These are unprecedented and difficult times we find ourselves in, but it is very warming how the Jewish community has rallied round. I switched to calling my Jewish Care clients, as well as the other people I visit from the Association of Jewish Refugees and Pinner Care, early on.

“There’s nothing quite like brightening up the day for someone who is lonely. When I found Jewish Care’s befriending programme, I thought it sounded perfect.

“Five years ago, the volunteers team introduced me to Irene, who lost her husband Cyril of 58 years. Irene is 92 and lives in Stanmore. We hit it off straight away and, before coronavirus, we would meet every Monday, chat over a cuppa and sort out the world together.

“She was also going to Jewish Care’s Edgware and Harrow Community Centre before its services were suspended because of the pandemic. As Irene’s son was living in the US, Irene was used to keeping in touch on FaceTime, so luckily it was quite easy for us to carry on meeting virtually instead.

“We are enjoying talking on the iPad, playing games together and catching up on family news. And Irene does love a game of Words with Friends.

“I would say that it’s a privilege to be befriending. You get as much from the people you visit and talk to, as you give them.

“It’s only a phone call or video chat, but it makes a difference to them. It’s important we take care ourselves too. I make sure I put my lippy on, even though I’m not going out!”

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