NEWS: Witton Lodge Community Association launch Digit-All, tackling ‘digital poverty’ with a new electronic lending library

Words by Steve Sharma / Pics supplied by Witton Lodge Community Association

From Monday 24th August, isolated and vulnerable Erdington residents will be able to access essential support services thanks to an innovative new project being rolled out by Witton Lodge Community Association (WLCA) – Erdington Local can reveal.

The Perry Common based organisation is launching Digit-All – its own IT lending Library – to provide older residents and others in need of digital literacy support with the tools, skills, and knowledge they need to engage online.

Paul Tse, Flourishing Community Development Officer at WLCA, explains how COVID-19 has heightened an already pressing concern around digital literacy.

As a result of the lockdown, a significant number of the services and activities which older residents are dependent on have moved online,” he said.

The levels of digital poverty in Erdington were already quite high but this situation has seen even more adults become marginalised, unable to access the support they need. This puts them at greater risk of isolation, poor mental health, and mobility difficulties. Our project seeks to redress this imbalance and prevent such suffering.”

Work being delivered by the Erdington COVID-19 Taskforce and Witton Lodge’s employment and skills and health & wellbeing teams, has identified a number of people in urgent need of digital literacy support. Digit-All will address the three main areas of concern which have been identified – a lack of IT facilities, a lack of connectivity, alongside confidence and capability.

We have purchased a range of portable IT equipment including laptops and tablets that will be available to lend to isolated, vulnerable adults,” added Paul.

As part of the service offer, we will also be providing users with a free data plan (and/or wireless dongles) to enable individuals to connect to the Internet where they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to.

Digital skills training will also be available to help older adults learn how to use their devices and interact with others through platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook or Zoom.”

Funding for the project has been acquired through the Erdington Neighbourhood Network Scheme – one of Birmingham City Council’s constituency-based networks, established to enable engagement with and investment in community assets which support older people to lead independent and connected lives.

Councillor Paulette Hamilton, Cabinet Member for Health and Social Care, said: “Neighbourhood Network Schemes have been set up to reduce isolation and improve social connectivity and wellbeing at a local level and in particular to support our older and more vulnerable citizens, keeping them active and engaged within their own localities.

The evidence of work carried out by organisations like Witton Lodge during the COVID-19 lockdown reveals that many of our older adults either do not have access to information technology that could help them be more in control of their lives, or do not have the confidence and ability to navigate the Internet to search for information and services that can help them remain independent.

Digit-All is a proactive response to digital poverty that has become more apparent during COVID-19 across our communities.  I am excited and look forward to seeing the service develop and being rolled out across Birmingham’s neighbourhoods,”

The project, as a prototype, launches from Monday 24th August – with those already identified as being in urgent need of support the first to receive laptops and tablets.

Following this initial trial period, the scheme Witton Lodge Community Association are looking to roll out Digit-All to a wider audience across North Birmingham.

For more information and photo opportunities call Steve Sharma on 0121 382 1930 or email steve.sharma@wittonlodge.org.uk

For more on Witton Lodge Community Association, visit www.wittonlodge.org.uk

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FEATURE: James Brindley Academy’s Dovedale Centre – school life during lockdown

Words & pics by Ed King

There have been a lot of words used to describe the coronavirus crisis. But when it comes to education, one stands out. Uncertainty.

Out of all the public sectors, withstanding healthcare professionals fighting on the pandemic’s frontline, education has been one of the most affected by lockdown restrictions – with staff and students alike having to embrace dramatic changes.

But whilst ‘uncertainty’ is ever present across all year groups, thanks to COVID-19, those in transition are amongst both the most talked about – with Year 11 students preparing for further education under the biggest question mark of their young lives.

The thought of going to college is still ‘a big one’, for me personally,” explains Archie Walters – who has left his leavers BBQ to sit and talk to Erdington Local in a now physically distanced classroom. “But at the same time it isn’t massive, because I’ve got an older brother who is eighteen and in his second year of college – and seeing him do it has made me realise that I can do it as well.” 

I’ve had quite regular communication and emails from, and to, teachers,” tells Callum Kimberley – who is also leaving Dovedale this year to go into further education, “checking up on me and seeing if I’m alright.

Regarding how they prepare me for collage, one teacher did all that before lockdown… Miss Connor. She helped me a lot. When we went to Sutton (Collage) and we went into one of the classrooms for a lesson, she was more worried about that than me. She was like, ‘ah, you’ve really made me proud…”

Part of the James Brindley Academy, the Dovedale Centre is ‘a 81 placement provision for pupils with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC)’ – teaching Key Stages 2, 3 and 4, preparing the older children for the next stage in their educational journey.

With a cohort that require a more tailored approach to teaching than those in mainstream schools, Dovedale’s students could be suffering the most during lockdown. But for Archie and Callum, at least, the experience has been surprisingly straightforward.

One of the reasons for that, is because in this school…” begins Archie, “it makes you feel like you’re important because they (teaching staff) will take their time, to give you emotional support wherever you need. And that’s partly, in my opinion, what makes the relationships between pupils and teachers here as good as they are. Because they’re willing to make the time.”

Quick to mirror the feelings, Callum continues: “Yeah, we have very good relationships… we have different ‘go to’ teachers. It’s basically ones with similar interests and there’s just loads to talk about – to be honest, quite a lot of pupils and teachers get along really well here…” 

As robust as any 15-16 year old you might want to meet, Archie and Callum head back out into the schoolyard – soaking up the last few hours with the people who have been so important to them over the past few years. But the students are only one side of a school, and life under lockdown has also been a shift for the staff at Dovedale.

At the start is was quite challenging,” tells Mr Ellery, a Teaching Assistant and Pastoral Worker with the Year 11 cohort, “it was difficult imagining being away from them in such an important year… and ending it almost halfway though. 

Usually they come to us for the answers – you’ve been through this before sir, how did you cope with it? But no one’s been through this (COVID-19) in their lifetimes and we can’t predict how long this is going to go on.” Concerns that are peppering society, but more acutely when it comes to education.

But like the world of work now entrenched in Zoom meetings, digital technology has helped Dovedale function during lockdown – using interactive online platforms, staff have been able to maintain a semblance of the status quo with their students.

We were able to get a group of kids together in a weekly Skype call,” continues Mr Ellery, “getting them talking to each other – encouraging them that, in a time like this, the best support comes from your friends and family, as well as your teachers.”

But Year 11 has its own challenges, not least of which is the transition from secondary to further education – a difficult time for any student, let alone a young person living with autism.

A lot of what we would have done in physical face to face meetings, has just taken place over the phone or virtually – via Microsoft Teams,” explains Ms Lowe, a Special Educational Needs Coordinator and English Teacher who works with Year 11 at Dovedale.

A lot of colleges have been great in providing virtual support as well,” continues Ms Lowe. “We’ve got one young person whose college has given them six weeks – half a day every week, for the last six weeks – where they’ve had a virtual tour of the college. They’ve met their tutors already; they’ve already been introduced to the people in their class. So, that’s really great.”

But necessity is often the other of invention, and the digital platforms that began as an interim measure are now being looked at as an unexpected silver lining – especially when dealing with students who can find social situations more of a challenge.

In my role as SENCO, it’s given me food for thought for some of our young people who’ve got real anxiety about coming to school in the first place,” adds Ms Lowe. “We’ve now got the tools and the knowledge and the skills to be able to still give them the education they’ve got the right to.”

A lot of them present themselves quite confidently, but they’ve got these deep rooted anxieties,” explains Mr Ellery. “But today, when I asked about their thought process about college, each one of them have said ‘I’m actually looking forward to it. I’m anxious about it starting, but I’m looking forward to it.”

This experience,” continues Miss Lowe, “it’s forced them to transfer the skills they’ve learned in school into their own personal life. Coming back after the lockdown, they are so much more mature. Their resilience has been overwhelming. They’ve been amazing.”

The strength of the relationships between students and teaching staff at Dovedale is palpable, mirrored in the words and actions of both. It’s the first thing everyone mentions when asked about school life.

But at the top of the hill you get the broadest view, and Dovedale is a community of students, staff, but also the parents and carers of the children that attend.

We started looking at what do parents want? What’s the need?” explains Charmaine Parry, Centre Leader at Dovedale.

Surveys were then put out to all our parents,” continues Ms Parry, “to find out what do they want? And not only do they want us to be open, but with what sort of provisions. What can we do to support them as parents? And to get our young people transitioning slowly back into the school system.

So, we went through that process, gathered the data, and then as a team – with the attendance officer, Pastoral managers, SENCO – we spoke to every parent. We said, look, tell me what you want. We’ve done the survey. We’ve got an idea. But now as an individual, you tell me, what do you need?”

One of the widespread concerns, in the media at least, has been physical distancing – clouded by doubt over whether young people would stick to the guidelines in school. At Dovedale, however, this hasn’t seemed to be a problem.

To start off with, we looked at the size of the classrooms – so we could work out how many pupils we could have realistically in school,” tells Ms Parry. “Then we did all the markings. The one way flow system, that was all put in place as well – having to come in through reception, go down the corridor, up the back end ,up the stairs, to come down the front, we put all that in place.

Surrounded by black and yellow can create a sense of safety, but also of urgency – how did the children at Dovedale respond? “There’s been a huge change,” admits Ms Parry, “but the minute they came in, they saw that they could understand it. It was very clear. The signs are really clear.”

But how about the parents and carers? “I think the parents are probably being a little bit more anxious,” continues Ms Parry. “But I’ve had emails from parents saying that they are now happy to send their child to school after hearing from other parents – telling how well it’s planned, the structure that’s in place for them, the one way system, and the social distancing. And that means a lot. 

We’re doing our best to make sure that staff and children are kept safe in school. And everyone’s adhering to that. Everyone understands the guidelines.”

So, despite understandable concerns, it seems life under lockdown at Dovedale has not made a drama out of a crisis.

And whilst many questions remain, there is another word that would be appropriately applied to Dovedale. One that may not have been spoken in March, but as September approaches is growing in both suitability and strength.

Confidence.

To find out more about James Brindley’s Dovedale Centre, visit www.jamesbrindley.org.uk/dovedale

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FEATURE: Witton Lodge Community Association connects an isolated community via popular social media platforms

Words & pics by Ed King / Video by Paul Withers – Erdington Local Broadcast Unit

As part of their ongoing outreach activity during the coronavirus crisis, Witton Lodge Community Association (WLCA) are using social media platforms to reach out to people across their community.

Running support sessions via WhatsApp, Zoom, and Facebook Live, a team of trained support specialists are offering online advice on a range of social concerns – including health and wellbeing, employment, financial advice, and mental health, during self-isolation.

As part of the rolling programme, running weekly from Monday to Thursday, a ‘Health & Wellbeing support group’ meet via Zoom every Tuesday between 3-4pm. Whilst a special ‘Furlough Scheme Information session’ meet every Wednesday, also via Zoom, from 11am to 12noon – offering advice to people who can no longer leave the house to work.

Further sessions offering ‘Employment Support’ and ‘Social Interaction’ meet every Thursday, via Zoom between 10-11m and via WhatsApp between 11am and 12noon respectively. There is also a special session called ‘Coronavirus Myth Busters’ run every Tuesday, accessible between 10-11am – again, via Zoom.

All interactive online support services being offered by WLCA can be found on their website, under the ‘COVID19’ tab on the main menu.

With the country on lockdown, the Internet has given community support centres such as WLCA an immediate tool to reach those in need – whilst staying self-isolated and following the social distancing guidelines issued by Public Health England.

About three weeks ago we established our digital World of Work and Wellbeing platform,” explains Iram Fardus – WLCA’s Business Development & Performance Manager, “and through that we are currently supporting our Erdington residents with their health and wellbeing, employment, and housing enquiries.

As an organisation we also understand that people might need help with benefits and financial enquires – so we encourage anyone and everyone to get in touch with us; as an organisation, if we (WLCA) can’t support them then will be able to put them in touch with someone who can.”

Using social media already established in people’s day to day life, the hope is that the familiarity with these platforms will encourage more members of the community to get in touch.

We thought most of the residents would already be connected with platforms like Facebook, Skype, and WhatsApp,” continues Fardus, “on top of that, residents don’t need to pay anything for it… they are free to use and most of the residents already have access to them or they already have accounts.”

But the doors of social engagement swing both ways, and once a week Witton Lodge Community Association’s Employment & Engagement Officer, Dellano Lewis, runs a specially tailored ‘Topical Information Session’, or ‘Live Social’, though the Facebook Live platform. The aims of the interactive online sessions are to both listen to, and direct, the concerns from people across the area.

During these times it’s about thinking of different ways we can communication with the community,” explains Lewis, “with these Facebook Live sessions it’s all about connecting virtually. Now everyone’s at home, we have to tap into a different energy, a different frequency. Live Social is all about sharing positivity, sharing information that people can get through Witton Lodge Community Association.

We’re also connected with a lot of other partners who are working in the Perry Common community, within the Erdington area – so any form of information an individual may require, or want access to, they can get that through Witton Lodge.”

But during these times of social fracture, where tight knit communities such as the one in Perry Common are being forced apart, there are many dangers facing an increasingly isolated community. Finance and employment are certainly pressing concerns, but the mental wellbeing of local residents is also being addressed during the Witton Lodge ‘Live Social’ sessions.

It’s vital (to be connected), it’s something that’s really needed in these times,” tells Lewis, “to have communities and organisations that can offer that kind support – that can reach out to someone who’s self-isolating, to reach out to someone who’s lonely…

It doesn’t matter about background or age, or anything like that; to know that there’s people out there, organisations out there, that can support you during these times – even virtually, over the phone, via Skype, Zoom, any kind of digital platform, is very important.”

Interactive support sessions via social media at Witton Lodge Community Association

Full details of all online support sessions being delivered by Witton Lodge Community Association – and how to access them though the various social media platforms used – can be found via the organisation’s COVID-19 web page at www.wittonlodge.org.uk/covid19-news-information-and-resources/

 

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