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VODA Team Q&A: Alison Donkin

Ali Donkin NT LIFE Recovery College Lead Coordinator usually spends her days as the friendly face of NT LIFE facilitating sessions at The Hub in the Linskill Centre, enrolling students and volunteers into the project, organising volunteer facilitators and coordinating the timetable and a multitude of tasks that these main duties create. However, in response to the pandemic, Ali’s role changed considerably.

How has your role changed due to COVID-19?
When the Linskill Centre was forced to close its doors to the public it was only a week after I had had hip replacement surgery. So possibly, unlike many other people, something somewhere inside me experienced joy. A strange emotion at this time however I could now focus on what I was able to do from home.

As a result I got busy with contacting all of our participants to update them with how we were changing. Initially, this was achieved by email and phone calls. Then, as adverse as I am to social media, I engaged the use of Facebook and our webpage on VODA’s website to ensure participants had a range of courses, information, positive affirmations, puzzles, games and links to other useful sites as I could create and or find. Fully believing that these would serve as great distractions, coping tools and hopefully keep people connected with NT LIFE.

As a result of these efforts our followers rose to 303, almost 100 more than pre-Lockdown and our reach exceeded 4500 views weekly, some 100 fold increase on past Facebook performance.

With the help of Jo Woolley and Hannah Barugh I embarked on the delivery of art packs, craft packs and activity packs delivering these to around 80 of our participants in the first five weeks. We also created and delivered 20 Sunflower grow packs with everything needed to grow your own Sunflower, with pictures uploaded on to Facebook of their progress.

With the help of several volunteer facilitators: Julie Bishop (Guided Meditations), Mick Turnbull (Art Group) Emma Farrell (Creative Writing & Book Club), Gemma O Connor (Creative Writing) we also delivered over 10 hours of Zoom meetings throughout the week. Zoom meetings engaged on average three to eight people per session, with people connecting outside of these sessions in Zoom meetings and phone calls of their own.

At about five weeks into Lockdown through the daily contact I recognised that there was quite a number of people we weren’t engaging or being able to connect with. Coupled with my rising concern that the initial stoic spirit was waning. I knew I had to do something else to let people know they mattered. This led to the creation of our Little Box of Hope.

The Little Box of Hope was designed to be both a caring gesture, demonstrating that NT LIFE values and cares about the wellbeing of all its students and volunteers, as well as giving people useful tools to help them cope. With the help of volunteers for packing and distribution and the wonderful design skills of Amy Millar we successfully delivered over 200 packs to our registrations, a further 20 packs to the staff of a local nursing home as a nod to the NHS, and 18 to the diligent and selfless VODA staff.

With some of the delivery volunteers creating packs of their own and distributing them personally, and teachers and service staff requesting use of the template the ripple effect continues.

I have also helped devise with North Tyneside Council and the Young Mayor a NT Quaran-Teen Survivors bracelet for teenagers returning to school. To remind them of the resilience and strength they have shown and also to be used as a tool for positive change.

As restrictions were eased, I was also able to accompany a few participants on socially distanced walks, which also helped aid my new hip recovery.

What lessons have you learned?
I’m not sure whether they were lessons learned or beliefs strengthened?

Firstly necessity is the mother of all invention. Or put another way “There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time. Comfort and prosperity have never enriched the world as much as adversity has.” Just look at what was achieved in such a short space of time not just here at NT LIFE but throughout the North Tyneside Community

Secondly this was done with the selflessness of individuals, having a purpose external to ourselves benefit’s not only the receivers but the givers and the onlookers. Creating a sense of connected-ness which ultimately I believe is one of the greatest psychological human needs for our mental health and wellbeing.

And finally keeping productive kept me sane. It may be personality, conditioning or simply a distraction coping mechanism working towards something kept my mind away from the WHY questions and focused me on the HOW. In other words instead of why is this happening to me/us/the world which would lead me into feelings of sadness, frustration anger, I focused on How: How can I make a difference, how can I improve things How can this be better.

What do you think you would have done differently?
As a result of these events, I am revamping the enrolment process so that we have more detailed information that is updated more regularly. I know some people missed out on opportunities as we didn’t have the most up to date contact information.

So many people had birthdays during the lockdown, those I got wind of were celebrated but I know we missed some. To have been sent a card could have made all the difference to some people so I’m going to ensure where possible we have date of birth info, just in case we have a second wave.

From a personal point I definitely need to schedule self-care time, I’ve realised that the difference in being productive and just plain busy is enormous and most definitely self-care has a lot to do with being productive

How do you see your role as we move towards the recovery phase?
Luckily for NT LIFE was one of the first of the VODA projects to get back to some normality. From early July I have been delivering a series of Catch Up Sessions on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s back at The Hub in the Linskill Centre. Over these sessions we have been connecting weekly with over 35 of our students and volunteers in face to face meetings.

I have deliberately kept these sessions informal so that people can catch up and share their experiences. Lately we have introduced some taster sessions for crafts and creative writing lead by Amy Crammond and Emma Farrell (volunteers). With the regular Art and DB Cuppa T groups lead by Mick Turnbull and Julie Bishop (volunteers) this means that when we launch our September timetable we already have bookings.

One of the big changes moving forward, to ensure people are Covid safe, is the introduction of the booking system to limit group sizes and avoid disappointment. Highlighting a need for someone better equipped than I to run our admin system, so I will be recruiting a volunteer to assist.

We have also been assigned some amazing Peer Support Workers who will bring a range of different skills and strengths to the delivery team, I’m eager to support them with this.

I’m very much looking forward to facilitating face to face sessions again, especially the Wellness Recovery Action Plan 2 Day Awareness course that me and 4 of our volunteers have just qualified to deliver, courtesy of Recoco Train The Trainer sessions.

Whilst there will be new skill sets and new tasks to perform I see my role remaining to be to recognise, that irrespective of diagnosis individuals possess strengths and skills of value, to present opportunities that engage them and allow them to be the best version of themselves whilst developing their own self-care, self-management and autonomy.

What do you feel is your biggest achievement during this crisis?
My biggest achievement through the crisis without doubt was The Little Box of Hope which couldn’t have been achieved without the help of so many volunteers and VODA staff.

What was your biggest challenge (so far)?
Apart from not taking out my feelings of frustration on my husband? Who knew how important it was to me that there is a proper way to fill the dishwasher? You had to be there!

Feeling I was enough or did enough- I’m still not convinced that I did, and this is a common theme for people with lived experience of mental ill health. I’m humbled to have witnessed the tremendously courageous and valiant efforts of so many North Tyneside Residents throughout this crisis.