Blog by Sporting Memories Co-founder Chris Wilkins
First published on 2 April 2020

This will have to be quick… 

I’ve been asked by a couple of people now to get something down on paper about our organisation’s rapid transition in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. Being an organisation that works predominantly with older people the phrase that sprang into my mind when describing our response has been that we have had to ‘turn on a sixpence’. 

Sporting Memories, comprising as it does of a social enterprise and registered charity in both England and Wales as well as Scotland, has evolved over the last eight and a half years around a succession of funded projects which has seen us move from just offering reminiscence and other group social activities to one which also encourages physical activity, reconnecting isolated older people living with long-term conditions with other sports fans, sports they once loved and generations they have become disconnected from. At the heart of our work is bringing people physically together on a weekly basis so that friendships can form, peer support flourish and lives can transform. We have seen improvements in mental and physical wellbeing, feelings of loneliness decline and participants becoming reconnected with wider social, sporting and health networks in their communities. 

Then, COVID-19. All our activities came to a grinding halt and our club members retreated into their isolation. What do we do? The immediate response was natural, intuitive and flowed naturally from our staff and volunteers, motivated by the need to stay in touch; phone calls made to make sure everyone was ok and to reassure members that we would stay in touch. But what do we do? 

Fortunately, we have always been an organisation that has wanted to both scale and innovate. Every new funded project has helped us to develop reminiscence resources, create online training tools and videos, build apps and work with an ever-increasing number of partner organisations. And we have always thought about the things we would like to do – if ever there was the time.  

Well now is the time; the time to consider all those ideas and to see if there is any way to reinvent our delivery and the way we can support not only our members but, potentially, a much wider community of isolated older sports fans. Equally, what we need to do in order to make some of those ideas real. 

The immediate realisation was that any logistical divisions between our separate entities were largely irrelevant in the face of a common challenge. So as we started to organise those many ideas into tasks we also allotted team members to tasks according to skill-set and interests while ensuring geographical spread; the latter to ensure we could both draw together experiences and ideas on the ground from across our entire network and also be in a strong position to cascade any innovation and new practices back again. 

It’s still very early days but already within two weeks of our Clubs being suspended:  

  • Volunteers have drawn up lists of members to schedule weekly catch-up calls over the phone 
  • Our trained volunteer facilitators have turned physical weekly Clubs into online virtual Clubs, utilising our new digital resources with our members who are able to use platforms like Zoom. Our team created instant ‘how to guides’ to assist members get to grips with new software 
  • Our area coordinators have created WhatsApp groups for our volunteers 
  • We distributed flyers and emails so that individual members, their carers and other family members could subscribe using Survey Monkey to our digital Sporting Pink, designed for our Clubs and the first issues were distributed after one week via Mailchimp 
  • We have adapted our website ready for a new campaign #TalkAboutSport that we are launching on 3 April to tackle the issue of older sports fans isolated in their own homes across the UK. For this we are creating a different version of our digital ‘Sporting Pink™’ reminiscence newspaper, based upon eight years of working with our members and more suited to one-to-one reminiscence whether in person or over the phone. We have even created a new video on how to undertake sporting reminiscence over the phone to help those who might be daunted by the prospect. An overriding concern is that we can support ways to reach the most isolated older people who may have no other connection with the outside world other than a landline
  • We are reaching out to other older people organisations to help with this potential rapid growth in our reach, recognising that empowering new volunteers and reaching new participants outside of family relationships and well-established friendships requires other networks of support to ensure good matchmaking and safeguarding 

And that is just the start. Over the coming weeks, we have much more in the pipeline. It can only be helped if funders are able to respond quickly and help support some of this innovation, and fortunately one or two have come forward already.  

We’ll keep spinning on that sixpence and meet this challenge head on. 

Chris Wilkins

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