Cambridgeshire Army Cadet Force places great emphasis on community spirit, and this determination to help others is reflected in the career choices and volunteer work undertaken by its members. Their work, often difficult under normal times, has been made vastly more challenging by the Coronavirus. A great many of our adult volunteers are key workers, and not all can be given the recognition they deserve here. The following are just a few of the many stories and reflections of our adult volunteers and cadets who have been engaged in vital work during these difficult times.
2/Lt Tom Knights, Detachment Commander of Sawston, is a paramedic with East of England Ambulance Service. Already used to long hours and life or death decision making, 2/Lt Knights has been faced with multiple further challenges in recent months.
In the initial stages of the pandemic, 2/Lt Knights was immediately required to make long journeys to and fro London to assist with the large number of patients being admitted to London hospitals with the virus. These shifts often lasted 14-15 hours and covered up to 300 miles. He found wearing PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) gruelling, especially when attending patients who were thought to have the virus, or when conducting life-saving procedures that were especially likely to transmit it. In these cases, full boiler suits, visors and respirators have to be worn. Strain has further been placed on his whole team by the concern they felt for a colleague who had fallen seriously ill with the virus. Though he has since recovered, their colleague’s illness served to further underlie the risks they are all exposed to.
2/Lt Knights has been gratified by the level of public support he and other NHS staff have received, not just the boost to morale from public clapping but also practical support, such as public donations of food and free meals provided by The Ivy Cambridge Brasserie. In-spite of the difficulties he continues to experience, he is upbeat about the future. ‘People are getting happier, our workload is decreasing, we are finding time to talk to each other again.’
1 Company Training Officer SMI Gemma Offer is a Civil Celebrant- a job largely consisting of leading secular funerals. Funerals have been greatly affected by Covid-19, in that the Government has introduced tight new restrictions which affect the number of attendees and social distancing. Only a small number of people who are from the person’s household, or close relatives, can attend, with close friends only being allowed if relatives cannot. This inevitably causes distress to people who are excluded. As such, there has been an increase in the use of webcasting/live streaming facilities to broadcast services to families affected. Under normal circumstances she would meet with families in their own homes to discuss the arrangements, but she is now having to conduct meetings via telephone.
The overwhelming challenge of funerals during the pandemic is emotional. She says ‘The job of a celebrant or minister is always challenging emotionally. Conducting a funeral under restrictions is so much harder, because you know the person that's passed away really deserved a full house, and a wake where everyone shares happy memories. I know how much a funeral means, and how much it is a part of the grieving process to be able to share your grief with other people who loved your loved one. Not being able to do that is heart-breaking to watch. Other key workers such as NHS staff, have rightfully been given a lot of praise in the media, but I can also speak for those working in the funeral industry; the funeral directors, funeral arrangers, pall bearers, crematorium staff, cemetery workers, mortuary staff, coroners, registrars, all of whom are also putting themselves at risk to look after other people’s loved ones with dignity.’
Cadet Lance Corporal Emily Taylor, of 3 Company Cambridge Detachment, volunteers at The Edge Café, Mill Road Cambridge, which is a Fair Share food distribution place. ‘We help supply people with food when they may not be able to afford it. I started volunteering at the beginning of lockdown to help the community and work four days a week. I believe that everyone should support others who may need some extra help to keep themselves safe. We have managed to help so many people who just can’t afford enough food during this crisis.‘ She helps to move the food stocks from the car and place the food in the right areas. When people come to receive it, she weighs their bag on the way out to monitor how much food is going out every day. She and her colleagues make sure all visitors sanitise their hands before collecting their items. She deals with around 90 people a week collecting essential supplies that will help them through the difficulties this pandemic has caused. Without this support, those people would be unable to feed themselves or their families. The vital importance of this work motivated LCpl Taylor to get involved. ‘That is why I decided that rather than sitting at home I’d go out there and help those people who need it the most, because we are all in this together.’ In normal times the café provides a key function in helping people to recover from addiction, but this regular business has had to close leaving many people vulnerable. The café will reopen soon to allow takeaways.
LCpl Taylor is incredibly positive about her voluntary experience. ‘I liked meeting people who are a great help to the community. I learnt that helping others is good, and they will be respectful to you. I also learnt that the smallest thing will change someone’s life. For example, I gave a birthday cake to one lady as it was her son’s birthday, and it made her feel so special and she was so grateful. Working at The Edge is such a brilliant experience.’
Senior Padre Mark Amey is the new Senior Padre of Cambridgeshire Army Cadet Force. He is also vicar of All Saints Parish Church in St Ives, and CEO of the local foodbank. Both of these roles have been made much more challenging by the virus. With his church closed, Padre Amey’s pastoral care work has gone online, as has his services. As with SMI Offer, he has found funerals to be especially challenging and traumatic for relatives now that personal interaction is no longer possible. His cadet work has continued also, by attending virtual training sessions and looking after the welfare and mental health of cadets, assisted by his recent qualification as a Mental Health First Aider. His work running the local foodbank has been much more difficult than usual, due to a huge surge in demand from people who are out of work due to the crisis. Running two foodbank session per week, Padre Amey explains that when they might previously have had six families per session, during the height of the lockdown this went as high as eighteen. Managing this has required considerable work from himself and his team of volunteers. Luckily, this was more than matched by the generosity of donors. Like the others, Padre Amey is upbeat. ‘Its been exhausting, but community spirit is back. Isolationist culture is disappearing as people realise how much they need each other.’
Major Lesley Deacon, Commanding Officer of 1 Company, is a midwife. Her job, like so many others, can be challenging enough under normal circumstances. Like 2/Lt Knights, Major Deacon has found wearing PPE hot, sweaty and uncomfortable. Repeated hand washing has dried her skin and led to further discomfort. Her work relies heavily on her interpersonal skills - including her ability to offer friendship and reassurance to the women she deals with, and this has been made much more difficult and frustrating by the wearing of a mask that hides her face and has meant she has had to work harder to communicate with her body language instead. Major Deacon and colleagues wear PPE all the time when dealing with women, consisting of googles, face visor, apron and gloves. Wearing PPE is also exhausting in terms of practical logistics - as protective equipment needs to be taken on and off when entering rooms, this is enormously time consuming and extra time must constantly be allowed for these changes. Assistance from colleagues is needed to get PPE on and off efficiently, and all breaks must be carefully planned.
She says ‘There is much more pressure and stress than usual, but everybody is pulling together to support each other. We know more about one another than we used to, and we are really bonding as a team.’
SSI Dave Moller, an instructor at Waterbeach Detachment, was working as a taxi driver before the lockdown. Now without work, and very much wanting to help those in need, he found a job as an Emergency Care Assistant (driver, crewman and caregiver) in a private ambulance with East of England Ambulance Service. His work, consisting of long 12 hour shifts, included assessing whether Coronavirus patients needed to be taken to hospital, and just like 2/Lt Knights had to wear PPE, including full body suits, face masks and face shields in the case of high risk patients.
SSI Moller felt a great sense of satisfaction in his work, especially when he saw people who he had helped, and had recovered. He said 'I have learned that life is short, and unexpected, and we need to live it to the full'. He went on; 'seeing the patients suffering or in pain was very hard, but the skills I have gained over the years of training and teaching first aid in the ACF helped me cope with some of the more difficult parts of the job. Without my ACF training, I don’t think I could have done the job. It was very hard work, but one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.'
These cadets and volunteers are representative of many members of the Army Cadet Force both in our county and across the nation, who serve their communities and have risen to the challenges created by the Coronavirus. All of them have placed emphasis on others, whether it be colleagues, patients, bereaved relatives or members of the general public, they know that their job is to be there for people in need. They have met these challenges with courage and determination, and also a sense of optimism for better times ahead.
Text by PI Stuart, County P.R.O.