There is no question that the last 9 months have had a huge impact on the mental wellbeing of all in the UK and worldwide. The rapid change to our usual routines left many feeling extremely discombobulated and the uncertainty of knowing when we can get back to anything that even vaguely resembles our old “normal” can lead to a sense of a loss of control, which itself can drive anxiety levels sky-high.
As we’ve all adapted to a life that is a great deal more home- and family-based than many of us are used to, so have many organisations similarly changed how they work in order to continue providing their services in whatever way they can. The benefits from doing 4 weeks of Stagecoach on Zoom were absolutely tangible for G and M, and it was encouraging to hear them giggling their way through the 3 hours of classes on a Friday evening. They’re delighted to be able to be back to “real life” classes this week and seeing some old familiar faces, both teachers and friends.
One organisation that has definitely gone the extra mile is Over The Wall. I’ve written numerous times about the amazing impact their camps have had on G and M over the last few years and this year was no different. It would have been so easy for them to simply shrug their shoulders when it became clear that camps couldn’t be held as normal, but instead they rolled up their sleeves and worked hard to produce the fantastic online “Camp in the Cloud” sessions for all who had applied for camp places. The week-long activities broke up the mundane experience of life in lockdown and challenged both children in a different way that they very much needed. That opportunity to connect with other young people who really understood how they might be feeling once again proved invaluable. Some might think that this charity’s determination to still deliver their regular offering as best they could despite the circumstances is going the extra mile, and I wouldn’t disagree, but I’m actually speaking about that something more they’ve now gone on to do.
Following the resounding success of their online camps, OTW has gone that one step further and continued to hold cabin chat sessions via Zoom on a monthly basis. G and M were both keen to participate and that hour or so at the start of each month has been a real lifeline for them. Cabin chat was open to anyone who had attended the virtual camps no matter where they are based and so both children have found themselves in groups with others from across the UK. It has been an hour to chat, laugh, accept and set challenges and just generally share how the last few months have and are affecting them. They’ve both made new friends and once again the boost to their mental wellbeing has been evident immediately. The planned chats have now finished, but we’ve all got our fingers tightly crossed that they will start again in the New Year.
Of course, none of these things could happen without the dedicated team of staff and volunteers at Over The Wall and we can’t thank them enough for going that extra mile and once again supporting G and M as best they can. Over The Wall have announced today that they are planning to continue with the virtual camps next year and beyond, even once the residential camps are able to start up again, which is quite simply the best news ever.
Exams aren’t easy at the best of times and there can be no question that this year has posed the current cohort of exam students challenges that no-one could have even imagined when planning for the GCSEs and A-levels to be taken this summer. G has been working hard for her GCSEs over the last 2 years and, since the true extent of her anxieties became clear, having additional tuition and learning mindfulness techniques to help her manage the exam sittings as best she could with increased confidence in her own abilities.
Add in the stress following the fiasco with the A-level results day this time last week and it is easy to see why it hasn’t been an easy week at home. G has obviously been massively impacted by the confusion over how her final GCSE grades would be calculated and the huge sigh she gave after the latest government u-turn was announced on Monday evening showed just how heavy that burden has been. She and I have spent a lot of time talking about her results and what they will mean for this next step in her life journey. G knows what A-levels she wants to study and is fortunate to have 2 offers on the table from our local secondary schools, but still has to make up her mind as to where she wants to go for the next 2 years. It is nothing short of a miracle that I have not turned more extensively to alcohol and chocolate to see me through, although there’s still time before we’ve finished ploughing our way through the chaos and reached final decisions!
In many ways the decision to use the centre assessed grades (CAGs) is good news for G as she hasn’t had to undergo the stress of the exams, but this is a concern in itself as she will have no direct experience of how to sit an exam when it comes time for her A-levels. However, we have time to work on managing those anxieties and will continue to work with her tutor to make sure she has the opportunity to experience timed assessments to mimic the pressure of an actual exam.
More importantly, G knows how proud Mike and I are of the hard work she has put in, including her decision to continue following her GCSE revision plan during the first few weeks of lockdown without any prompting from either of us. We hope that her results will reflect her efforts, but G knows that as always we have got her back and are prepared to fight her corner if needed to make sure her next adventure starts as she wants it to.
2020 will always be the year when the exams weren’t sat, but that shouldn’t distract from the hard work and effort put in by all these young people throughout their school careers and the hellish void of information that they’ve been living with since March. No matter what their results are, they all should be commended for their fortitude and determination to succeed in the most extraordinary of circumstances.
Nothing brightens up a gloomy day like a beautiful sunflower. Tall, majestic and reaching for the sun, its bright yellow colour is sure to cheer up even the darkest of moments. There really is just something intrinsically cheery about this flower to my mind; but did you know just how powerful sunflowers can be?
I am, of course, not talking about the flower itself, but rather the incredible Hidden Disabilities Sunflower scheme, launched in 2016 in response to a query from Gatwick Airport as to how to better its help to travellers passing through its doors and since adopted by numerous airports, supermarkets and other stores and businesses across the UK as well as slowly being recognised worldwide. The scheme uses bright green lanyards covered with sunflowers to indicate that the wearer has a hidden disability and therefore might need additional support, time or space to use that particular facility. All done in a subtle yet visible way.
We hadn’t engaged with the sunflower scheme previously, but given G’s recent challenges with panic attacks and anxiety as well as M’s ongoing health issues and his own anxieties when it comes to travelling with his medicines and foods, the time finally seemed right to give the sunflower lanyards a go during our Christmas trip to New York. I requested them through the Heathrow airport website and was delighted with how promptly they arrived with us with no hassle. They formed a part of the big reveal on Christmas day and both children were wonderfully willing to wear them as we travelled with G having to be reminded to remove hers once we reached our hotel in NYC.
The support given throughout the airport was fantastic and extremely thoughtfully and carefully given. The Virgin Atlantic staff at check-in approached Mike and I to see what additional help we might need, but didn’t ask questions in front of either G or M. Our journey through security was remarkably easy as the airport security staff opened a new lane for us to go through without comment and were then careful to minimise the examination of M’s medicines and the food that we were having to carry with us. I was impressed with just how well all the staff working at Heathrow appeared to have been trained and how they offered us help and support without making a fuss.
The only problem encountered was that M found the material of the lanyard uncomfortable to wear, complaining it irritated his neck, so instead I attached it to his backpack, which made it less easy to spot on a first glance. I’m sure that he will not be the only person who will struggle with this because of sensory issues and so was glad to be able to give some constructive feedback to what is otherwise a fantastic scheme. Our sunflowers were unquestionably powerful during our Boxing Day adventures and will no doubt be something we make use of again the next time we travel.