With a global pandemic in full swing and national lockdown restrictions in place, life as it is has become challenging for everyone. However, for many of the women and girls Baytree supports, the impact of the Coronavirus outbreak has amplified existing challenges and support needs.
Lockdown has caused a soar in poverty. People have lost their jobs, a situation that is worse for many migrants who, whilst being able to work in the UK, are not eligible to receive benefits. Many are struggling to pay rent and bills and keep their families fed. The pandemic has taken it’s toll on people’s mental health and seen a 25% rise in domestic abuse calls. (Office of National Statistics, BBC News)
Since the closure of the Centre on March 18th, staff and volunteers have been working tirelessly to support women and girls in our community through this pandemic.
Providing information advice and guidance, referrals to food banks, support with universal credit applications, medication and emergency aid, domestic violence, home schooling and more, Baytree’s Women’s Service has delivered 302 emergency support sessions to 92 women over the last 11 weeks.
Bianca, one of the women to have received support, said ‘During this time of lockdown Baytree has been a great aid to us. Thanks to them my daughter and I do not feel alone or helpless. Baytree is our family here, always thinking about us, calling us regularly, checking our wellbeing. They helped me with the food vouchers, contacting my work and my landlord and my daughter’s homework. For all of this we feel really grateful.’
In these unprecedented times, wellbeing and family stability, two of the Women’s Service’s Social Mobility programmes 5 pillars, have become more important than ever. Our Social Mobility Coaches have been working together with our Place For All partners and volunteers to develop a range of short videos offering information, advice and guidance to women. These videos have and will continue to be uploaded to our Place for all YouTube channel and can be easily accessed by our women whenever it suits them.
With daily government guidelines and updates affecting everyone’s lives, continuing our ESOL provision has also been a priority. Since lockdown 103 women have accessed our daily ESOL programme. Taking into account many of the women’s connectivity issues, including lack of devices such as laptops, the team has been offering sessions and support via a variety of channels including WhatsApp chats, voice messages and video with small groups as well as email and Zoom. In keeping the topics relevant, our tutors have led discussions with the women on what it means to be in lockdown and make sense of government guidelines, advice and the news – vital support for those with low level English.
Volunteers old and new have been offering their time for one-to-one chats over the phone for women who have asked for additional support in practicing their spoken English. Many of the women, being housewives, mothers and/or caregivers, have very little chance to speak English outside of class time. For them, a phone conversation in English can be daunting but they are rising to the challenge. Sadia, who is one of the women who is taking advantage of these calls said: ‘I had 2 calls for 1 hour or a little more, really it has been very helpful. The last call was about of questions about job interview, she corrects to me. I am very happy with my volunteer.’ The range of ability among the students is wide – from almost no English to general conversation in what one volunteer termed ‘an uninterrupted flow of broken English!’ Volunteers are showing amazing initiative, sensitivity, compassion and concern for the women they are supporting. They are thinking of topics to talk about and asking the team for advice on the appropriate way to correct the students.
With a focus on wellbeing and staying socially connected, the Youth Service team have been providing a programme of virtual sessions and activities via zoom so our girls can continue to connect with friends and take part in positive activities. Sessions include games, quizzes, yoga, dance and qigong many of which have been led by volunteers.
Weekly Baytree Challenges, ranging from art and baking, to nature scavenger hunts and breathing exercises, allow the girls to take part in fun activities when it suits them best.
Spark and Junior Spark have continued to take part every week on zoom. The sessions are an opportunity for the girls to have a laugh and see their friends but also provide a safe space for them to talk about the issues that are affecting them now. Issues such as not being able to see friends, relationships with their family, worries about schoolwork and exams, maintaining a healthy routine and the black lives matter protest.
Spark girls have also taken part in the Nora project, a participation project, in collaboration with the Young Vic Theatre. Pre lockdown the girls went to see the Young Vic’s production of Nora: A Doll’s House. After a session discussing the themes in Nora, a play was written exploring female agency, friendship and how to measure self-worth in a world under social media’s siege. Whilst originally intended to be a piece of live theatre, the girls took part a series of 26 workshops and created a digitally reimagined scrap book style film.
With many parents struggling to support their children with school work, often due to language barriers and being unfamiliar with the UK education system, along with the pressure and uncertainty of this year’s SATs, GCSEs and A levels, providing additional academic support and reassurance has been a priority. Staff and volunteers have continued to keep in touch with girls and have been providing one-to-one mentoring, academic support and wellbeing check-ins to 63 girls. A weekly Maths and Reading group session on zoom is another welcomed initiative. Tiffy who is in year 10 and receiving 2 hours of academic support and mentoring a week said ‘I feel so much better. I was really stressing about school and all that but now I feel like I’m on top of things. I’m getting science support cause that’s my worst subject and my mentor is helping me with all the other stuff like maths and sociology and also with de-stressing a bit’.
Demand for our Into School programme, that supports refugee and migrant girls without a place in mainstream education, has increased since lockdown. With school applications suspended and services running at reduced capacity, many girls were left in limbo. Since lockdown 5 new girls have joined the programme and several others have been added to our waiting list.
By taking part in the Into School programme on zoom, girls are given a routine and structure to their day as well as regular interaction outside of their households. The programme runs 3 days a week with girls receiving daily English lessons alongside Maths lessons, taught by qualified teachers. We have also increased our focus on physical health and mental health, with girls taking part in a weekly live exercise session delivered by the running charity as well as a wellbeing workshop.
The Volunteer Service have been working tirelessly to support existing volunteers with the transition from volunteering at the centre to volunteering remotely. A few weeks into lockdown, an appeal went out via BBC News, calling for volunteers to offer remote support for women at Baytree learning English.
The response has been tremendous, with the team running online inductions, processing DBS checks and matching volunteer mentors with women and girls. Volunteers have attended zoom coffee mornings hosted by the Service team allowing them to come together and share their experience as well as tips and ideas, an important initiative to keep volunteers connected, whilst everyone in isolation from home.
Not being able to connect to the Internet has affected many women and girls’ ability to do their schoolwork and stay connected with friends and family. We have been providing laptops and data packages to families in our community so that they can connect and complete schoolwork. So far, we have handed out 11 laptops to families.