We are now entering week five of the lock down period. At the beginning of this, we were determined to make meaningful commitments to our clients and staff to ensure they continued to thrive through these challenging times. In week five, we are keeping the whole charity focussed on a plan that takes us through this, and beyond the immediate sense of crisis.
Anyone who works with vulnerable adults and children with autism knows how important routine is to help regulate anxiety. With so many things up in the air, it was essential to us to communicate very clear messages right from the start. So, we came up with our Four Foundations – straight away we used these as a reference for decisions and connections across many worried remote workers. Our Four Foundations mean that, wherever you are in the organisation, you always have a ‘hook’ to refer back to.
So far, so good, and we are so impressed with how everyone has quickly adapted and committed to working in different ways. Our teams always go above and beyond for our children and adults, and thanks to this, we were always going to be a strong force, ready to address these unprecedented times.
Our Four Foundations are:
1. Keep our services open and available to the people we support as long as we possibly can
As we entered lockdown, we talked very carefully about the possible costs, risks and challenges involved in keeping everything going. At that time, there was no indication from the government or anywhere else that there would be any support for charities. The charity trustees, the senior team and our wider staff group, including our incredible keyworkers, are committed to supporting people with autism through this period, even if it means operating outside of normal running costs. It’s what we are here to do! Our goal is clear, even if it means using reserve funds to ensure we stay operational.
2. Prioritise our health and well-being
I’m very pleased to say that in week five, none of our clients or staff have been diagnosed with Covid-19. To contribute to this, some of our amazing staff have moved out of their family homes to ensure they’re not putting clients or their own families at risk. As soon as we heard about the lockdown, our caretakers renovated and created four bedrooms overnight, two near Crewkerne and two here at our offices so that if people needed to isolate to be able to work, there was somewhere for them to go. Around 20% of our staff are self-isolating and as we provide 24-hour support care, there is great pressure on our rotas. The new bedrooms mean that there’s a nice, safe place to stay, with a shower room and kitchen in both locations, if staff need to travel and stay to cover for absences.
We have also just completed training for a group of twenty Mental-Health First Aiders who are here to talk to in confidence if things get difficult. Government guidance has been confusing for people, with lots changing every day and so for the first few weeks, our HR Team took calls to explain things personally until 9pm every night.
Finances are such a massive worry for everyone and can severely impact on wellbeing, so staff can talk to our Mental-Health First Aiders and HR Department in confidence about any issues they have during or after work hours. Things are changing so fast, and when you’re immersed in your every-day working life, and often remotely, it’s easy to get the wrong end of the stick, so they’re there to help with expert interpretation of government advice as new guidance emerges.
Equally, our employees can rest assured that we are doing everything to keep staff employed and safe. Many of our colleagues who are parents themselves were experiencing child-care difficulties due to school and nursery closures. Overnight, the school team set up an activity centre for staff children to look after them while their parents worked.
Our finance team has stepped up, too. Remote working can be so isolating, so we have redoubled our efforts to keep in touch with our busy keyworkers. The finance team down tools for an hour every day, taking a break from year-end accounts, to spend time checking in with teams from around the region. We call them our ‘Touch-Base Team’! Keeping this daily contact means that we’re up to date with any issues; when PPE delivery is expected, anxiety due to lack of parental visits and loss of routine, or just checking in with how colleagues are coping, and if there is anything we can do as an employer.
We are here for every employee, no matter whether they are working, or if they are having to isolate or shield. My own goal is to speak to everyone personally to keep in contact, but also just so they know I am thinking about them. I have been overwhelmed by the positivity and commitment of the members of the team I have spoken with so far. Thank you just does not seem adequate.
3. Keep our jobs going - keep our people employed
All our efforts are focused on continuing our work without furloughing large numbers of staff. As a charity, not many of our employees could ever consider losing their salaries or reducing them, but no one is sure how long the situation will last or how our situation will develop. Whatever happens, we will do everything we can to keep the doors open and ensure everyone has the opportunity to work. As an organisation like many other charities who can only pay statutory sickness pay, our Trustees have agreed to pay full salary for two weeks to anyone who has been identified with Covid-19. I truly hope that we don’t reach that point. We are really proud of our continuing to work, whilst keeping safe practices in place.
Some of our keyworkers have kept the whole service running by working extra-long hours, through their holidays, or even isolating from their families. We are committed to finding ways of recognising these incredible people for the work they are doing.
4. Focus on the future
Having initially focussed on the immediate, we then turned to how making sure we still have everything in place to educate children and young people and support more adults when Covid-19 has been conquered. It is essential that we are able to help them return to routines and aspirations, whatever this period brings.
All charities are suffering badly from a curtailment of fundraising activities, and we are no exception. Where possible, we are developing online initiatives, so keep an eye on all our social channels for news of that. We also have big expansion plans this year, with major investment in our infrastructure so that we can expand to meet the needs of our region.
There is life and business after this, and a charity to develop, so in parallel to all the activities we have to address Covid-19, we are ensuring other activities and events are moved along the calendar, rather than cancelling them. We really want to stay in touch and thank our supporters for being there throughout. They are vital to us, from individuals who come up with a funding activity, to organisations who support us with volunteers and activities. Sometimes that’s just retweeting and telling the world about what we do. No matter what your contribution, it’s all important to us.
We’re still planning to deliver a number of developments projects by September, and our contractors, James Groundworks, have committed to keep going on our new Sensory Multi Use Games Area until supplies run out, which was originally meant to be delivered about now. But it’s still taking shape and it’s going to be a fabulous resource for our children and the community.
The demand for school places is higher than ever for September 2020. For parents hoping to enrol their child, we’ve gone virtual, with assessments online and over the telephone. For any parent securing a September school place is a big worry. But for parents of a special-needs child, it’s even more concerning. Knowing that you have the school of your choice for your autistic child helps everyone to look forward. We understand how important this is and even during Covid-19 we are increasing capacity to try and meet the need.