Reflections of a Small Charity CEO after an unprecedented year
‘Oh crumbs’ (or words to that effect), ‘this Covid-19 situation really is serious’ was roughly the thought crossing my mind as I arranged an emergency meeting of Trustees on Sunday 15th March 2020.
What were we going to do?
We’d already put some measures in place at the end of February to try to keep people safe at our choir rehearsals (hand sanitiser / writing a song about how to keep safe etc). We had cancelled an event taking place in a care home. Which, knowing what we know now, was absolutely the right move.
But by 15th March there was a strong sense that we needed to go further.
So, pre-lockdown, I faced my technophobic fears and we moved our weekly Wednesday evening choir sessions to Facebook Live (instead of gathering at our usual venue in Redhill). There was a huge sense of uncertainty about this, would we be able to continue supporting and connecting people, would our members come with us, would people still need Include ‘on a screen’? We just didn’t know.
As it turned out, the answer to all of those questions was yes. Even pre-pandemic, many of our existing members were at risk of feeling isolated from parts of society, due to the unequal experience of people with learning disabilities or autism.
Then, on top of this and the national lockdowns, many members are shielding and/or face restrictions on visitors to supported living or residential settings. Others moved homes to families, leaving friends and routines behind.
Now was not the time to reduce what our charity offered.
Instead, we had to adapt and support more vulnerable people to adapt too, so they didn’t become more isolated or anxious. We asked Include Choir members what they ideally wanted and when. We increased services, volunteer and staff numbers, and we committed to deliver what they needed through platforms like Zoom and Facebook for free, for as long as possible. Which was far longer than any of us expected.
At times, it has felt like hammering square pegs into round holes.
As a speech and language therapist, and former NHS safeguarding adults lead with 2 small children, I thought I was used to juggling multiple priorities, wading through bureaucratic quagmires, having difficult conversations and making challenging decisions. I’d already discovered that founding and running a charity (with 2 small children) was akin to juggling flaming torches blindfolded, while spinning plates and balancing a trifle on your nose…
…and now, a pandemic?
All the feelings
Having to make decisions about a situation where the information is unclear, the support to understand it limited and the consequences uncertain has been uniquely unsettling.
Having to shout so loudly to ensure our charity’s voice was heard and supported amongst the clamouring of so many in need, exhausting.
Feeling utterly powerless to control the direction of travel or be anything other than reactive to the situation left me feeling, at times, utterly despairing of ever making progress in long-held plans.
The sense of loss – it has felt so sad and uncomfortable that a key part what we are and love to do (sing together) has been under scrutiny and deemed high risk.
It felt, in short, as I imagine it often feels to be a person with a cognitive communication impairment (understanding and speaking difficulties). This is how many of our members (and some of their family members) tell us that life before and during the pandemic makes them feel:
intimidated by the world
not listened to
powerless to change things
Looking back over the last year, what has struck me is not the fear, the anxiety, the frustration (don’t get me wrong, all those things were there in abundance) but what was notable from our members, (and our volunteers and staff) was the resilience, the determination – and the ability to rise above expectations and external limitations to connect and create something beautiful for one another, showing what is possible when we can create the right fit for everyone.