The Provincial Grand Lodge of Sussex has been recognised in the Community Stars Awards after been nominated for Charity of the Year
It was a huge honour for the Province to have been nominated, with the nomination for the award itself coming from their local newspaper The Argus who hosts the awards, which recognise the outstanding achievements of men, women, children and organisations across Sussex.
Each year the public and the Argus nominate those who have made a considerable difference to the communities in which they live and how through their activities change people’s lives.
Maurice Adams, Assistant Provincial Grand Master for Sussex, commented: ‘Although we didn’t win, it was a real surprise to have been nominated and esteemed recognition for all the hard work that takes place across our province to raise money for such worthy causes.’
The awards citation read as follows: ‘The Freemasons have donated £38,000 in a big cash giveaway to six charities. The six were nominated by Freemasons and members of the public to receive a grant from the national charity, the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF). Groups helping the sick were among those to benefit; Rockinghorse Children’s Charity, Sussex MS Centre, Sussex Heart Charity, The Clock Tower Sanctuary for the homeless and the domestic abuse charity Rise.
‘Freemasons across the country observe the 300th anniversary of the United Grand Lodge of England and to celebrate the occasion they donated money to 300 charities across the country from a £3 million fund. Although the £38,000 was donated from the Masonic Charitable Foundation, the Sussex Freemasons also support a lot of local charities from their own pockets.’
Traditionally, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Sussex, in conjunction with the Editor of the Argus newspaper, present the final and emotional award – The Child of Courage – and this year the presentation was made by the Deputy Provincial Grand Master Martin Mitten.
Kent-based disability charity Compaid has been awarded a three year grant by East Kent Freemasons to train disabled adults in computer skills
The training will be delivered by a team of volunteers and staff at Compaid’s dedicated centre in Paddock Wood in Kent, as well as by a further team of Outreach trainers supporting people in their own homes and in day centres across the county.
The grant, totalling £45,000 over three years, will pay for two staff posts within the training service, supporting over 250 disabled learners to gain skills in a variety of topics, such as use of social media, internet shopping, online safety and digital design.
Digital exclusion remains a key barrier for disabled people. Almost 50 per cent of disabled people do not use the internet regularly and 27 per cent never use it at all. This equates to more than 32,000 disabled people in Kent.
The grant from East Kent Freemasons comes through the Masonic Charitable Foundation, which is funded by Freemasons, their families and friends from across England and Wales.
Stephen Elsden, Chief Executive at Compaid, said: 'We’re very grateful to East Kent Freemasons for their generous grant which will help hundreds more disabled people to realise their dreams and aspirations by gaining skills and confidence with computers.'
East Kent Freemasons Mark Bassant said: 'We’re very pleased to be able to help Compaid who do outstanding work helping some of the most vulnerable people in our community get online, with all the opportunities the internet offers.'
The District Grand Lodge of Cyprus was proud to host the visit of the Pro Grand Master Peter Lowndes on 20th October 2017, where he had the opportunity to meet many members of the District, visit a local lodge and attend a Gala Dinner
It was a very important day for the District with plans for the visit having been started by the District Grand Secretary Robert Humphries several months in advance.
Together with his own Director of Ceremonies Charles Hopkinson-Woolley, the Pro Grand Master visited Apollo Lodge in the village of Episkopi where they were welcomed by the Worshipful Master Alan Cook. During his visit, he was also introduced to Gordon Rowell, an active member of the lodge at the ripe old age of 89.
In common with other visitors to the rather ancient Nissen hut which houses Apollo Lodge, the Pro Grand Master was astonished to see the attractive and well maintained interior of the building, including the beautifully laid out dining room.
The Pro Grand Master learnt a great deal about Apollo Lodge and the District Grand Lodge of Cyprus. On completion of his visit, he was then presented with a framed print of an original painting by Brian Howard which depicted the Apollo Lodge building and the surrounding gardens.
The day continued with a business lunch with the District Grand Master Theodosios Theodossiou and District Grand Secretary Robert Humphries. The main event in the evening was a Gala Dinner Dance in the Panorama Room of the St Raphael Hotel, which was attended by 160 Freemasons and guests including the Grand Masters of the Grand Lodge of Cyprus and the Grand Lodge of Greece.
During the evening, the Pro Grand Master addressed the assembly and explained some of the highlights of the Masonic year including visits to other Districts in the Eastern Archipelago and Sri Lanka, where he had witnessed first-hand the charitable work that the Districts had been involved in. He also thanked the District Grand Master of Cyprus and the organisers of the visit.
After rousing applause, Theodosios Theodossiou thanked the Pro Grand Master on behalf of the District and presented a cheque for €10,000 to the Masonic Charitable Foundation – to which, in reply, the Pro Grand Master expressed his heartfelt thanks on behalf of the charity.
Wiltshire Freemasons have donated £5,000 to Swindon Foodbank to help the charity cover their operational expenses
Provincial Grand Master Philip Bullock presented the cheque from the Masonic Charitable Foundation to manager Cher Smith MBE, one of only two paid employees at the central warehouse located in Westlea.
Every day, seven days a week, the Swindon Foodbank central warehouse is receiving, sorting and despatching food parcels to the seven town-wide outlets for collection by people in real need.
Philip Bullock said: 'It’s such a deserving cause. It helps people who are in need, which is what Freemasons are all about.'
Wiltshire Freemasons have been real supporters of Foodbanks throughout the Province, particularly at Christmas when demand often exceeds available supplies.
This year Philip Bullock and Charity Steward Ian Priest visited the Swindon warehouse where they were shown around the facility which had just received a huge delivery of grocery product.
Cher Smith commented: 'We are very grateful to Wiltshire Freemasons and the Masonic Charitable Foundation for all their help; it wouldn't be wrong to say that £5,000 really will make a huge difference to what we are able to do.'
Salisbury Hospice has a very special place in the hearts of Wiltshire Freemasons which explains why the Hospice receives such tremendous support from many of the Lodges in the county
The Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) also provides regular funding to Salisbury Hospice and this year Provincial Grand Master Philip Bullock visited the Hospice to meet Corporate Fundraiser Celia Scott and present a certificate acknowledging an MCF donation of £1,900.
After presenting the donation, Philip Bullock commented: 'I am delighted to once again be here at Salisbury to not only give the Hospice this donation, but to also thank every member of staff for the incredible work they undertake in making this facility one of the very best in the region.'
Having received the cheque, Celia Scott thanked Philip and the MCF for their continued support and also provided a detailed update on the work of the Hospice and how the donation would help to make a difference.
13 December 2017
An address by the MW the Pro Grand Master Peter Lowndes
Well Brethren, what a year, and if you are anything like me you are looking forward to putting up your feet over the Festive Season, and actually reconnecting with your family. Having said that it has been an enormous privilege to have been Pro GM during the Tercentenary year and I am sure that the Deputy and Assistant GMs will echo that sentiment in respect of their important contributions.
I do not propose to give you a résumé of the whole year. That would be impossible and you would never get to lunch. At the outset Provinces and Districts were asked to concentrate on coming up with events in their own jurisdiction which their Brethren could join in and enjoy. Dare I say, Brethren, they all did this in spades and I include our Groups of Lodges in that. Quite rightly there was often a significant charitable aspect to these events. I should add here that this was greatly enhanced by the imaginative input from the MCF with their multitude of grants across the Provinces. The Rulers and Past Rulers have endeavoured to meet your requests and you, Brethren, wherever we have been, have looked after us with incredible kindness and generosity, thank you so much.
Since our last Communication, we have had the Grand Ball and our major celebratory event at The Royal Albert Hall, at the end of October.
The events of the 29th to 31st October were a resounding success and I must congratulate and single out Keith Gilbert and his team for the superb administrative arrangements throughout. Diane Clements and the Museum staff who managed to collect, catalogue and display the many gifts brought by the 133 Grand Masters from around the world amazingly quickly, I think in under one hour! These are now all displayed in the Museum. And, finally, to James Long and his team who took us all by surprise at the Royal Albert Hall with an amazing and uplifting performance of Masonry across the three Centuries. The whole “London” experience was way beyond, certainly, my expectations and from the comments we have had since, it all simply astounded our hundreds of visitors from overseas. Well done indeed.
Brethren, has there ever been a better time to be a Freemason. I really believe that during the year we have learned so much about how to talk about our Freemasonry with non-members, helped enormously by the Sky Documentary which has opened our eyes and made the general public more receptive. I would love us to have had more editorial control over the end product, but that would, perhaps, have defeated the object. Nonetheless I think we can go forward from here with enormous self belief and pride
We look forward now to 2018, continuing the work of the Improvement Delivery Group and capitalising on the successes of this year, rewarding those who have worked so hard throughout the current year at our March Communications and remembering the fact that it is 100 years since the end of WW1 after which this magnificent building was built as the Masonic Peace Memorial to recognise the sacrifice of over 3,000 English Freemasons who fell in that war.
Brethren, thank you for all your endeavours this year and I wish you a most enjoyable and relaxing Christmas with your families and send you all my good wishes for 2018.
Up to the plate
As the staff at the Parthenon restaurant busy themselves preparing Greek delicacies, they communicate in sign language. Matt Timms discovers how masonic funding is giving deaf people new opportunities and changing perceptions
Last year there was not a single Greek restaurant in Blackburn. So when the Parthenon flung its doors open in May, locals rejoiced that finally there was a place to enjoy some Mediterranean cuisine. Never one to do things by halves, Doug Alker, the man behind the place, brought over a chef from Greece, Greek waiters, and even a traditional Greek musical duo, complete with bouzouki (a traditional string instrument) and liberal use of the expression ‘Opa!’
Chef Petros Tsilgkiriau claims his moussaka is ‘perfect’, while the staff hardly let a night slide without a spot of traditional dance. It’s authentic Greek and shares much in common with any restaurant you would find in the motherland. However, it also has one major difference – most of the people working here are deaf.
Rather than bark orders at one another, the kitchen staff use British Sign Language, or BSL, to communicate in order to cook and prepare meals. All except Tsilgkiriau are deaf, and three of the workers have just started 18-month apprenticeships organised by the East Lancashire Deaf Society (ELDS) and funded by the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF).
Statistics show that deaf people are 50% less likely to find employment, education or training than those who are not hard of hearing, due mainly to difficulties around communicating verbally. Approximately 71% of the deaf community fail to achieve the government’s target of five GCSEs, exacerbating the issue further.
The £75,000 grant from the MCF will fully fund the Parthenon restaurant apprenticeship scheme three evenings a week for three years. It not only benefits the apprentices but improves perceptions of deaf people in Blackburn and beyond. With local businesses able to engage with the scheme, the hope is that it will open up employment opportunities for apprentices later in life.
‘We’ve created a working model here for how the deaf should be treated,’ says Alker, executive chair and managing director of the ELDS. ‘It’s a small-scale model, and all we need now is to expand. People should come in and see for themselves that this is how it can be done.’
The restaurant is a self-supporting, not-for-profit social enterprise established by the ELDS. It joins 11 other apprenticeships, including nurseries and a home-solutions programme, as part of the charity’s efforts to integrate deaf people into the community. ‘Perceptions have changed of what it means to be deaf,’ says Alker, who has headed up the ELDS for more than 20 years.
Vasileios Orfanos, who goes by the name Lakis, has been working in the kitchen as an apprentice for three months. ‘To the hearing people who think deaf people can’t, it’s a nice message to say, “Yes, we can,”’ he says of the restaurant.
As a fan of Greek food and cooking, Orfanos says the apprenticeship has not only helped improve his skills in the kitchen, but his confidence, too. ‘Now that people see me here at work, I think attitudes have changed. Working here, I’ve seen a shift. People see that a deaf person can work and do anything that they want to do.’
Tanvir Shah, an ex-apprentice and now kitchen manager, has experienced many of the challenges that young deaf people face in work and education. Despite attending college and obtaining a qualification in mechanics, Shah has struggled to find a job. His hearing issues were deemed too great a risk by potential employers, and requests for interpreters proved too problematic – and expensive – to carry through.
‘That really hit my confidence,’ says Shah, who credits the ELDS apprenticeship for kick-starting his career. ‘I had the future to think about. I have to work for myself and provide for my daughter.’ After two years in the kitchen, he was asked if he wanted to work at the Parthenon permanently. Now he teaches apprentices, who can not only communicate with him on the same level, but also learn from his experiences. For Shah, the evolution from apprentice to mentor has paid huge dividends. ‘My confidence has skyrocketed,’ he says. ‘I’m not in this little box any more, nor do I feel so shy. I’m in a good place and just enjoying life.’
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
Another apprentice, Cassie Chrysah, lives across the road from the restaurant, and arrived from Greece with aspirations to work as a waitress. She has seen first-hand how the ELDS can open doors. Chrysah previously expressed an interest in joinery back home, and the ELDS has now given her the chance to study it at college. ‘Of course, deaf people still encounter barriers. But situations like this mean people’s resistance dissolves,’ says Alker. ‘With Cassie, with the restaurant, with the dancing, our aim is to change perceptions.’
As executive manager and self-styled ‘mum to the group’, Clare Stocks says the Parthenon staff are more than just workmates. After the last customer has left, the staff get together for a sit-down meal. ‘I consider these people my family. It’s not like I really want to go home,’ says Orfanos. ‘In a world where people see me as disabled, here I’m treated as an equal.’
Issues such as social exclusion and isolation affect all areas of society, yet the media tends to focus on the elderly. ‘We sometimes forget that these same issues can affect people of any age, particularly those with disabilities,’ says Les Hutchinson, Chief Operating Officer of the MCF. ‘As a society, we are incredibly lucky that charities like the ELDS exist. They have proven that it is possible to combat educational and employment barriers for young deaf people.’
The East Lancashire Deaf Society is a not-for-profit charity based in Blackburn that provides support to deaf groups across Lancashire. It aims to understand the diverse range of communication needs of deaf British Sign Language users, deaf-blind people, hard-of-hearing people and those who have lost theirhearing later in life. The society aims for individuals to get the same opportunities in education, employment, access and involvement as everyone else in the community. It achieves this through three key routes:
Find out more - click here.
Vote of confidence
In celebration of the Freemasons’ Tercentenary year, the public was invited by the MCF to vote for their favourite charities. John McCrohan, Head of Strategic Development & Special Projects at the MCF, explains the rationale behind this initiative
Tell us about your role…
I support the CEO and Board to bring together the activities of the four legacy charities that were amalgamated into the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) to ensure they continue to meet the needs of both the masonic community and the wider community through our non-masonic grant-making. In January 2011, I started working for the Masonic Samaritan Fund, one of those four legacy charities, as Grants Director and Deputy CEO. I held the post until the consolidation of the MCF in April 2016, when I took on my current role. As well as respecting the legacy of the four charities, it’s also my job to focus on the future and think about how we can do things differently – and better.
What are the Community Awards?
The full name is the MCF Community Awards –Tercentenary Fund. These are 300 grants totalling £3 million that acknowledge the 300-year anniversary of UGLE. The Awards were created in part to raise MCF’s profile within the masonic community, but also externally. This initiative was our first large-scale, public-facing activity, and was designed to let the wider public know about the good work that happens as a result of the generosity of the Freemasons. We typically spend up to £5 million a year supporting UK charities and responding to disasters and emergencies, both here and abroad. But to celebrate the Tercentenary, we wanted to do something in addition to that, which is where the idea for the £3 million Community Awards came from. We also wanted to celebrate the formation of the MCF.
How do the grants work?
They were for either £4,000, £6,000, £15,000 or £25,000, depending on how many votes a charity got. The grants were spread across all of our Provinces, and we allocated either four, six or eight grants to each depending on size. London got 26 because of its size. It was important that the charities we supported were operating, and helping people, locally. We wanted the grants to reassure masons that the MCF is pushing money back to their communities, to see that the money they give doesn’t get swallowed up in a black hole here in London. And, of course, we wanted to show that we apply good grant-making practice and observe good due diligence.
How did you decide who would qualify for a grant?
Firstly, I went to Provinces and said, ‘We’ve got money for you, we’ll be giving grants in your region, but we’d like you to tell us which charities are close to your heart.’ We then asked each Province and Metropolitan Grand Lodge to compile a list of their chosen charities, filtered down to their allocated number. The shortlists came to us and we carried out initial due diligence to make sure charities were eligible, that they weren’t already an active recipient of a grant, and so on. We then confirmed shortlists with the Provinces and Metropolitan Grand Lodge and began contacting charities, inviting them to formally apply for a grant. They still needed to complete an application, though by this stage they were guaranteed at least £4,000 – but could potentially get as much as £25,000 if they got the most votes.
What types of charities were nominated?
We had charities in every sector – from financial hardship, social exclusion and disadvantage through to health and disability, education and employability. We had community centres, initiatives reducing isolation and loneliness for older people and complementary emergency services – things like blood bikes, for example, which take blood supplies around a county.
And how did the general public phase of the vote work?
People voted primarily online – we promoted the vote on our website, and through our social media and masonic contacts. Having spoken to some charities that had already worked with the public on that kind of scale, however, it became clear that to really make the voting work, we needed the charities themselves to lead the promotion – on their own social-media sites and during public events. To do this, we provided them with materials showing masonic iconography and branding that they could use. And, of course, the competitive element of ‘more votes equals a bigger grant’ really spurred them on.
What were the responses like?
We ended up with 177,801 votes, which really blew away our expectations. Almost 160,000 of those votes were made online, with another 18,000 cast at local events. After people voted, there was an optional short survey of just two questions. One asked if the initiative had improved the voter’s opinion of Freemasonry. Some 57% of those who completed the survey – 36,000 people – said that it had improved their perception of Freemasonry. We believe that’s pretty strong evidence that the initiative really worked.
What did you learn from the project?
We’d never done anything like this before so we were all on a massive technological learning curve. We were very exposed, so the pressure was on – we only had six months to develop the project before it went live. We were still testing the voting pages, making sure the images were right and the copy was okay the day before launch. That was a bit stressful. It was all worth it when the charities, and public, told us they didn’t realise we operated on this scale or supported so many people in this way. Given that raising this awareness was one of our key drivers, I think we’ve been really successful. Going forward, we’ll be able to do something like this much more easily because all our building blocks are now in place.
What happens next?
We are going to monitor the projects throughout the 12 months that the grants last, and do a full evaluation at the end. We want to make sure that what we have done with this grant fund has made a real impact. In a year’s time we’ll go back and see what has worked, what hasn’t worked so well and what lessons have been learned. We’ll see how we can improve, if we do something like it again in future.
Find out more - click here.
Around the world
Four charities that have benefited from the Community Awards
Social Exclusion and Disability: Veterans in Action
Veterans in Action (VIA) helps armed service veterans who have suffered the effects of war or who have found the transition back to civilian life difficult. For the past six years, VIA has been organising walking expeditions that have needed support vehicles – Land Rovers and minibuses – which are now ageing and require maintenance. The funds from the MCF grant will be used to fund a new project called the Veterans Restorations Project, which aims to restore and upgrade the existing vehicles.
Financial Hardship: Centrepoint North East
Centrepoint is the UK’s leading charity working with homeless people aged sixteen to twenty-five. It supports more than 9,000 people a year, 800 of whom are from the North East. The grant will be used for its Rent Deposit Guarantee Scheme (RDGS), which aims to increase the supply of affordable rented accommodation to disadvantaged sixteen- to twenty-five-year-olds and those at risk of homelessness. As part of their acceptance on to RDGS, the person agrees to save with Centrepoint so they can afford their own cash bond as and when they move tenancy. This will enable them to have a secure base from which to build their future.
Education and Employability: Romney Resource Centre
Romney Resource Centre (RRC) was founded in 1999 and has developed a reputation as a centre of excellence, being the only provider of careers and skills advice, training, education and employment support in Romney Marsh for sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds and adults. Due to significant cutbacks in adult skills at the Skills Funding Agency, there is little further-education funding available for Romney Marsh communities – a critical situation if they are not able to upskill or attain updated qualifications. As a consequence, RRC is now seeking grant-funding support in order to continue its mission.
Health and Disability: HUTS
Now established for more than two decades, the Help Us To Survive (HUTS) Workshop supports individuals suffering with mental-health issues and learning disabilities across Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire. The therapeutic arts-based centre currently has more than 100 active members attending its workshop. The MCF award will go towards maintaining a full-time qualified ceramics and silkscreen-printing support worker. They provide support for members to explore creativity, gain confidence and to reduce isolation and deprivation within the rural community.
Pro Grand Master Peter Lowndes salutes the generosity of Freemasons who have helped to support good causes all across the world
In June, the Grand Master unveiled a plaque on the outside of Freemasons’ Hall, erected by the time immemorial lodges, and he was then declared their Worshipful Master at a splendid ceremony at Mansion House. This was particularly appropriate as, 100 years ago, his great uncle and godfather, the Duke of Connaught, had received a similar honour.
The other Rulers and Past Rulers have covered cathedral services commemorating our Tercentenary from St David’s in West Wales to Norwich in the east, and from Salisbury and Exeter in the south to Durham in the north, with many in between. You have then arranged dinners, a race meeting, car rallies, choral events and concerts, family fun days and fossil digs – all of which were splendidly organised.
I was privileged to visit our Districts in the Eastern Archipelago and Sri Lanka, witnessing first-hand the charitable work that they have been involved with. In Kuala Lumpur I visited the site of what I believe will be a splendid new home for the elderly. In Sri Lanka, the District has raised funds to bring drinking water to an outlying village and three schools in that area. Together with the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF), they are also supporting the relief efforts following the flooding caused by the unprecedented May monsoon.
These felt like short trips compared with those of our Assistant Grand Master, whom I feared was in danger of meeting himself coming back as he flew to Buenos Aires on 4 August for a meeting of our District of South America, Southern Division, and then on to Chile for talks with their Grand Master, before flying back to Heathrow on 8 August for onward travel to our District of Madras in Chennai.
It is humbling to witness your splendid efforts in support of Freemasonry. I have mentioned the Districts, but there has also been extraordinary work carried out in all the Provinces.
In June, I mentioned the phenomenal response you made to the Manchester bombing and Grenfell Tower fire in London. I can confirm that East Lancashire gave the Red Cross in Manchester more than £226,000 for the victims and that the Metropolitan Grand Lodge gave £100,000 to the Grenfell Tower Appeal – thank you for your generosity. And well done, North Wales, whose Festival with the RMGTB raised £3.1 million at £899 per member.
Thank you for your efforts with the MCF grants and public vote. I can report that more than 150,000 votes were cast across UGLE for the 300 charities to be awarded grants, and most of these votes – more than 80% – were from the general public. I know that the MCF has scrutinised these votes and has announced its award recipients. Congratulations to all involved in the MCF for this splendid initiative.
The project would not have been as successful without the exhaustive use of all social-media outlets, but I must here issue a caution on its use. Last year, we issued a very comprehensive instruction on the use, values and dangers of social media. One of the key points made was that you should ensure that anyone who you post images of on one of these sites should have agreed to be pictured. Yes, we need to be open and we want to promote our activities, but we must protect our members’ wishes. A little bit of common sense goes a long way.
Whether it’s paying bills or buying Christmas presents, we are increasingly being driven online to conduct sometimes complex transactions. Peter Watts finds out how masonic funding in Leicestershire is helping to close the digital divide for an older generation
Lindsay Prince volunteers as a Digital Champion, delivering technology support and advice for elderly people, and she never knows what to expect. It may be someone in their eighties wanting to log on to an online seminar, or someone in their sixties struggling to send their first text message.
‘Some can’t even use keyboards, but that’s what we’re there for,’ says Prince, who volunteers for Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland. ‘I feel strongly that anybody who isn’t online is disenfranchised from society. If they don’t engage with IT they are in danger of missing out. They can’t run a bank account, get tickets to an event or vote on Strictly. People are terrified by it, but once they take the first step they find they can get over that hump.’
It’s this belief in the importance of digital accessibility for social inclusion that has prompted the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) to provide £65,000 for Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland, which has been running the project in the region since 2014. The charity holds drop-in sessions at care homes, Age UK facilities, shops and town centres where anybody can attend and receive support for their tablet, laptop or smartphone. The funding will allow the project to run for another two years, employ an administrator and coordinator, and train volunteers. Troy Young, assistant director of Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland, says they hope to reach 2,000 people in that period.
THE DIGITAL LEAP
One beneficiary of the sessions has been Aileen, 86, who is now able to use her tablet to access a range of services. ‘It’s taken me months to believe that I can’t damage the tablet, so the digital sessions have been as much about confidence using the tablet as they have been about learning what I can achieve by using it,’ she says. ‘YouTube is marvellous because I can watch and enjoy seminars on a range of topics.’
Aileen’s story is one that the MCF and Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland hope will be repeated over the next two years. ‘What we like about this project is that it tackles social isolation from two angles,’ explains David Innes, Chief Executive of the MCF. ‘One is that in this age, where an increasing amount of our day-to-day activity takes place on the internet, there’s a large number of elderly people who struggle with the technology. They can’t manage money, access bus timetables or make GP appointments. It’s a real challenge and narrows their horizons even more.’
The other benefit is that in the process of gaining technology training, participants will have social interaction with the people teaching them. ‘The fact they are taking part in an activity will give them something to look forward to,’ Innes says.
Prince says that several of her regular attendees make a point of coming to sessions in part because of this social aspect. Many Digital Champions are young, and Prince – who is 70 and began volunteering after retiring from further education – admits sometimes she gets mistaken as a participant rather than a volunteer. But she believes that her age gives comfort to attendees, who see that age doesn’t have to be a barrier to new technology.
Having trained as a Digital Champion, Prince thinks it’s vital to go at the right pace and avoid scaring attendees with technical language. ‘It’s important to understand how different people learn,’ she says. ‘You need to realise you are working at somebody else’s level. It depends on the person, their attitude and what they did in their career beforehand. If you’ve never worked with machines, it can be difficult. You start by finding out what they want to use it for and you have to be careful you don’t overwhelm them.’
It’s also important that sessions are enjoyable, and Age UK’s Young says that feedback has been positive. The project has discovered hundreds of older people who were keen to go online but couldn’t find anybody providing the advice they required. ‘They were often worried they’d be made to feel stupid, and some of them have had negative experiences that made them feel out of their depth, but these are relaxed sessions that can be fun,’ he says.
Older people came to Young explaining that they had signed up for evening courses but were being taught about how to use spreadsheets or make presentations. ‘They weren’t interested in learning in such a structured way – they wanted advice and guidance about all the wonderful new technology. We started rolling out engagement sessions so people could have a play with the equipment. People were also coming to us very confused about the range of what was in the market, and they wanted impartial advice. A lot of it is about demystifying and making sure that older people don’t find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.’
Young is intrigued by the potential of using digital technology to provide reminiscence therapy for people with dementia. He hopes that Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland will soon be able to find volunteers who have experience both with technology and dementia care. ‘I want to take this project to older people who might not use the technology but can still benefit from it,’ he says. ‘There’s been some very interesting stuff around virtual reality and dementia recently, where they use virtual reality to take people back to times they might remember and that have a calming, therapeutic effect.’
As well as allowing the MCF to tackle social exclusion, the location of the project in the East Midlands allows the MCF to ensure masonic funds are evenly distributed.
‘We try to balance our grants, just as the masonic community is spread around the country,’ says Innes, who was previously Chief Executive at the Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (RMBI) and has experience of supporting elderly people.
‘I’ve seen for myself at the RMBI the difference that technology can make,’ he says. ‘Families are far more dispersed than they used to be, and with opportunities such as social media and Skype, you can connect to a family member anywhere in the world. In our masonic care homes, we provide connectivity to all residents, which has enabled older people to stay more in touch with relatives.’
Young is looking forward to continuing his work with Digital Champions like Prince, thanks to the MCF. ‘We were so pleased to get this funding because the grant will keep it going for another two years,’ he says. ‘And that’s important because the technology isn’t going away – we have plenty of demand. We want to make our sessions as inclusive as possible and ensure that all older people will benefit.’
Find out more about the work of Age UK in Leicester Shire & Rutland - click here.