So what was Re-BUILD and Connect? 

BUILD Charity's Chief Executive, and the designer and driver behind the programme, James Kearns takes up the story...

In the dark days of March and April 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, none of us really knew what we were expecting. I remember wandering around Sainsbury’s with everyone looking like a serial killer, because we thought we were going to die. This country had never been put under lockdown, and suddenly we were aware that just by speaking, coughing or sneezing, we could kill or be killed.  It was a very frightening time.

At this time, like most of you I was juggling my fears and apprehensions for my friends and family with my professional role to support our beneficiaries, people with disabilities and our staff and volunteers. I am paid to think strategically, to think ahead, and it was in one of these moments that Re-BUILD and Connect was born. 

I knew that if I was struggling, to understand all the information being pumped at me, then the people with so-called disabilities that I serve, must be having a really difficult time. 

If your reading skills, or digital skills are poor, then how do you find out what is real and what is fake news, how do you understand why you can’t visit your friends and family, how do you understand that the activities you did, and loved, with a charity like BUILD have stopped, and how do you start to think about what happens next.

There was going to need to be a plan for re-building, and connecting again, when this had all passed.

We started with Re-BUILD, we knew that we would need to re-build the confidence for people to go back to the shops, the pubs, clubs and cinemas, to re-build their faith in a community that was telling them that thousands of people were dying in our country and re-build their self-esteem that they would be leading their recovery.

We learned that many of our beneficiaries could not, or did not, connect with digital devices. They had phones, but made calls or sent texts, completely missing the opportunities to engage outside their home with a world on the web, where their friends and family already were.

We needed to re-build AND connect.

So that was the reason, but what was the method?

We knew this would need face to face engagement, we knew this would need a change in law to allow people to meet indoors, we needed equipment, and we knew this would need support, of both people and money. We raised the money through hard fought negotiations with funders like Norfolk Community Foundation and the Forbes Charitable Trust  This has enabled us to put together a funding pot to run this programme for not just one year, but three.

We needed to make sure that we could operate in a safe and secure environment so we made sure that all our support teams were vaccinated, and all completed PCR Lab tests and Lateral Flow Tests every day that we engaged.

There were some things we did not want to Connect with – and Covid was one of them!

We went live with face to face sessions in April this year with two groups of three people, one group on a Tuesday evening and one on a Saturday morning. These people had applied for a place, they were not given it on a plate.

We developed a programme over 13 weeks that started with CONNECT, three sessions where we loaned each person a new iPad and taught them basic skills of how to use e-mail, access weather forecasts, News channels and travel timetables. We showed them how to set up diaries and contact systems, and we showed them how to take photos.

We showed them how to download Apps that interested them, shopping, sport, social media – they drove the connection targets, we drove the learning.

Much of the credit for this part of the programme must go to the brilliance, empathy and understanding of one of our volunteers, Tim Taylor, who designed work sheets and guided people through each stage. Those guidance sheets remain in the graduate's portfolios so a huge thank you to Tim for driving that part of the programme.

Once we had a connection we started the Re-BUILD.

We started by completing a self-assessment. We looked at what skills and confidence levels people had and when we reviewed this in the middle and at the end of the programme we saw some very encouraging results.

We began going forward by looking back. Looking back at the things we had missed during the lockdown, we explored why we missed them, what value did they have and we looked at what we needed to do to get back to doing them.

We moved on to staying safe. Safe at home, safe outdoors and safe on-line, and then we looked at the BUILD Charity’s core services, social, leisure and learning opportunities. What did our people want to do, and how were we going to get back to doing them? We used our iPads to get travel plans, admission prices and see what was on offer. Re-building a social life and connecting with our communities.

We moved outdoors and explored the benefits of being outside, explored nature and facilities in local parks and gardens, we planned food and social activities learning about menu planning, budgeting and catering for different dietary needs, and we discussed what we would do if we “Ruled the world” to give us a wider thinking perspective.

We addressed our own health and wellbeing, went outside for exercises and set ourselves three exercise goals. We did teamwork and leadership activities learning about the value of working together, and the skills of leadership.

We did planning skills and worked through templates that gave us planning tools to use to help us re-build our lives and connect back with the communities we wanted to re-join.

Each of the 12 sessions we hosted were supported by a team of volunteers, some leading activities, some supporting people to get the best outcomes – all making a real difference, and we could not have done it without them, so thank you to Lisa, Carol, Jamie, Tim, Lucie and Catherine.

Throughout this process we followed a benchmark. We measured where we had started, we measured a mid-point and we measured at the end. We measured what we had learned and we measured how many areas each person had grown or developed, and everyone progressed. Some started from a higher ability base and progressed by 10 areas but our star student was Brad who showed progression in 35 seperate areas.

The end game was always about progression, so we ended the programme with a formal Graduation ceremony, co-hosted by a representative of Her Majesty The Queen, in the form of Deputy Lord Lieutenant, Mr Patrick Peal, who spoke in glowing terms about the achievements of the graduates, and those who had supported them. He said that "Norfolk was proud of them".

The guests at the ceremony were invited and hosted by the graduates themselves, some of whom have already agreed to become peer mentors for those taking the next programme.

In his opening comments at the Graduation ceremony, James Kearns said " Tonight is about celebrating the achievements of 6 extra-ordinary people, 5 of whom are with us this evening, who have lived with a label of “disability” but have shown themselves to have “live-ability” and “adaptability” as they have risen to the challenges of this personal development programme."  He paid tribute to their resilience, and also praised the family carers and supporters who had supported in the background between sessions, ensuring that everyone got as much out of the programme as possible.

Plans for a review of the first programme are now in hand with the second round due to be launched early in 2022 where the focus will be about reaching horizons through personal development at a time when we hope that Covid-19 is less of a driving factor.