• Creating a Community Where Everyone Belongs

My Life Blog – Caroline Tomlinson: ‘How to help people live their best lives despite the pandemic.’

You might have come across the discussion in the media recently about people with additional educational needs or disabilities being “forgotten” during the pandemic. These are the very people and families who desperately need the structure, routine and – perhaps most importantly – feeling of belonging to a community where educational opportunities and meaningful things to do in the day are critical. The people that My Life was set up for in the first place.

But many are at home. We see it ourselves; there’s one young man who would usually come to enjoy all the facilities and caring atmosphere at My Life in Standish, but, because he’s in the clinically vulnerable group, is isolating. However, we haven’t forgotten him. He is very much included. We are open – be that physically or virtually.

I’ve been really proud of our response to Covid within our My Life Learning and Day Opportunities settings. We’ve kept our doors and gates open to people who wanted to come; in fact the Education and Skills Funding Agency were pleasantly surprised by our approach. When the work with them was complete, we asked Public Health England to visit in case there was anything more we could do.

Why? Of course we all wanted to be safe, but we also knew how crucial it was for people and families to feel confident that they could return to a form of normality, a routine, an inclusive community.

It helped that we’re a unique establishment in Standish, where people spend 90 percent of their time outside. We had all the PPE, well ventilated spaces, one way systems. So it was wonderful to welcome 99% of our cohort back in September, and when the lockdowns were announced again in January, 50% are still coming to Standish and Leigh.

And let me reiterate, we haven’t forgotten the other 50%.

Making sure no-one misses out

I think if you’d asked us how we might make virtual education and day opportunities work for people who are practical, visual learners, there would have been an assumption it would have been really tough. But through a lot of hard work and determination that no-one will miss out, everyone will be included, we’ve integrated the live sessions with virtual sessions so that people can interact at home. They can cook together and we’ve produced learning kits which allow those at home to join in with the tools-based work. We’ve even managed to do some work in animal care – don’t worry, we aren’t sending sheep to homes across the North West!

Seriously though, ‘virtual My Life’ was hard for the people isolating at home to start with. They would see their friends at Standish and find it difficult to understand why they couldn’t be there too. But, going back to the young man I introduced you to at the start of this blog, that’s come full circle. He now feels that same sense of belonging, he feels included in the learning experience.

And, of course, the community experience too. We must ensure through this pandemic that everyone feels valued and a part of something. It’s the social interaction which is particularly critical for the people we welcome under the My Life umbrella. One mother told me that even though her daughter has extremely limited speech, it’s obvious she still feels involved and she’s still interacting online in her own way.

Crucially, it also gives her mother some respite, the ability to get on and do something else. It’s worked much better than we ever hoped. And as the vaccinations begin to roll out – most of our staff are vaccinated and by the time you read this hopefully our young man who is described by the state as ‘Clinically Vulnerable’ will be too – it feels like there is light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, it might be a while before we’re truly back to ‘normal’ as a society, but at least at My Life we are able to reassure people that there are familiar, safe places available that can help their vital routines get established again.

We really see how important that is: we have people in their 40s and 50s coming to Standish, whose parents are elderly and have struggled themselves during lockdown. We’ve been ringing, checking everything is ok for everybody in the family, and offering respite in the chalets – or full time and flexible provision at Standish if that can help them out of their situation.

We’re responding now and dealing with the paperwork later because, ultimately, we’re driven by the needs of the people we work with. In that sense My Life is more than simply providing a day opportunity or education, it’s making sure the person’s voice is critical in everything we do – and leads them to a more fulfilling role using their skills and gifts in the wider community.

Someone who epitomises this approach in a challenging time is Luke. He’s been coming to My Life since the very start; leaving a special school to come to us was his next step into the wider world. He did a few years in our further education programme, and throughout has been working towards his Duke Of Edinburgh Gold award, doing things that truly stretch him.

Last week, Luke finally got his Gold. A lovely story, and one that illustrates that it is possible to carry on and achieve despite all the personal (and global) challenges right now. You just have to do it in a different way. More than anything that really demonstrates what we’re doing on a much wider level with people in 2021. We’re not forgetting them; we’re helping them live their best lives.

Caroline Tomlinson, My Life Founder and Chief Executive Officer

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