Croydon volunteering charity Gig Buddies adapts to offer online support

Gig Buddies Zoom Call. Pic: Cherilyn Yates

“It’s been tough for us, as it has for everyone,” says Cherilyn Yeates of charity initiative Gig Buddies.

“Our whole project is based around exploring local nightlife, making connections and having an active social life – so it was hard to see how we could still be of value to our community in a lockdown.”

Yeates is talking about the effects that coronavirus has had on those that the programme helps. The initiative matches adults with learning disabilities to volunteers with similar interests.

“Gig Buddies is about empowering people, building friendships and giving people choice about what they do with their own lives,” she explains.

The programme is run by Croydon charity Club Soda and they are the first and only organisation to currently run the programme.

It was first founded by Stay Up Late, a Brighton Based charity. This started as a campaign against inflexible support which means that people with learning disabilities were denied the right to ‘Stay Up Late’.

Gig Buddies became a solution to this. The idea was that there would be people who love going to gigs and social events who would volunteer to enable a new friend with a learning disability to enjoy it with them.

The average hours of support work staff means generally clocking off work at 10pm, meaning that many people with learning disabilities end up leaving gigs, social events and night clubs long before 9pm.

Under lockdown Gig Buddies have had to adapt like most organisations.

Yeates explains: “We have been able to transfer most aspects of our work online and are continuing to develop this to ensure everyone gets the best out of the project and feels supported.

“We have definitely seen frustration from some of out Gig Buddies and volunteers, as we have seen frustration from everyone any this time. But we have also seen incredible resilience, a deepening connection within our little community and we’ve still been able to have a lot of fun along the way!”

The morale was kept high throughout lockdown for Gig Buddies with the initial creation of a weekly newsletter to share activities people could do online and keep in touch with their Gig Buddies.

This then went on to running online social events, a bigger event within these every three weeks and a coffee morning catch up on Zoom every two weeks. “We have been able to build up a dedicated group of people who attend and the attendance actually seems to be increasing as time goes on,” Yeates says.

The online events have included online discos, pub quizzes, dress up guess who games and karaoke nights, plus many more.

“It seems like friendships within our little community have actually grown stronger through the Zoom events, and we’ve seen some Gig Buddies becoming much more confident. It’s been crucial for us as a team as well to keep connected with people and have some fun.”

Currently Gig Buddies have managed to reinstate one to one meetings between their matched Gig Buddies following the new Covid safety guidelines. Yeates believes that this will make a real difference to people feeling more connected again. “We are taking it one day at a time though, because guidelines and policy is changing daily!”

The new Leisure Link, which provides savings on leisure activities to a number of concessionary groups, magazine is a monthly magazine that will be launching soon featuring Gig Buddies’ favourite venues, reviews and recommendations of things to do. This is all gathered from the Leisure Link group meetings.

Yeates adds: “Ultimately what we feature in the magazine will showcase what us important to people with learning disabilities in Croydon, as they get to decide what goes into it.”

“We are creating a directory of useful accessible and inclusive services in Croydon by contacting venues and services asking them to share with us all their accessibility info which we will display in the magazine using symbols. This info isn’t just about wheelchair access and hearing loops, but also having friendly staff, quiet areas and carer/companion discounts, which are maybe areas of access and inclusion people don’t always consider. As this directory grows we will then build an online ‘Inclusive Map of Croydon’ showcasing these venues and services, which we hope local venues will be excited to be featured on.”

Gig Buddies Croydon are still matching pairs, hosting events and socialising as much as possible in these unprecedented times.

Volunteers are still able to sign up to the programme if wanting to support people with learning disabilities.

Venues that are favourited include The Oval Tavern, FunHouse, Stanley Halls and many others.

The way in which Gig Buddies has helped those who have a learning disability is to make friends and have the accessibility to go to live gigs and clubs.

Holly, who is a part of the initiative, says: “Without Caitlin [her friend and gig buddy] I do not have any service at all, to go to places…she’s a really big part of my life, not only is she part of my life but also Croydon’s life as well.”

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