Every single day, Dan Skidmore waits for a notification to arrive on his smartphone to alert him of someone in need. The 31-year-old is part of the now-mobilised NHS Volunteer ‘Army’, a 750,000 strong force of volunteers looking to make a difference in the UK during the novel coronavirus outbreak, responding to tasks pushed through a support app designed to assist society’s most vulnerable. Despite glitching tech, significant risks to life and strict social distancing rules, the father of two is using his social skills, physical fitness and previous issues with mental ill health as a force for good, helping introduce societal change both in his local community and online. In his own words, he explains why it’s all worth it.
Since a young age, I’ve struggled with my self-esteem. Social situations would make me feel incredibly low with a floundering level of confidence and, regardless of my best efforts and despite having a solid group of friends, my spirits would continually hit new lows.
As I got older, it was a feeling I could never shake off. This lack of confidence saw me relying on others to make decisions on my behalf and led to me not being able to achieve what I had wanted to do. It would later become something that would see me and my partner, the mother of our two children, finally separate. She was decisive, forthright and confident. I was not. This led to our relationship terminating, albeit on good terms. It took six months of one-to-one counselling, several cycles of antidepressants and moving out of my family home for me to realise that I was the only with the tools to help myself and begin moving forward. I began to rebuild slowly, negative thoughts dissipating. I began acting on positive ideas.
This was all towards the end of 2019, the final chapter of a three-year story punctuated by tumultuous mental health and ruptured relationships. At that point, 2020 offered an opportunity to put this upturn in confidence into practice. Fresh employment opportunities and a new home hinted at some welcome solace as the clocks moved into a new year. But for many around the world, a seismic shift in society gave the end of 2019 and the start of 2020 a considerably more sinister outlook.
It was the outbreak of the novel coronavirus — COVID-19 — and the ensuing pandemic that tore its way around the world, claiming lives as young as five-years-old and pushing health services to near breaking point. Showing little discrimination, the disease has led to over 3.4m cases worldwide and over 28,000 deaths in the UK, being spread through close contact and ingestion of small ‘droplets’ from contaminated individuals or surfaces. Currently, there’s no available vaccine and the symptoms vary wildly, from a low-key lack of taste or smell to a considerably more worrying high fever.
Here, in the UK, the spread of the infectious disease has seen the NHS become overwhelmed with life-threatening cases, as hospital beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) are spread dangerously thin. As the war against the infectious disease waged on in hospitals, ambulances and care homes, I volunteered to fight it on a new front as part of a “volunteer army”, formed of willing members of the public, that had been tasked with relieving the strain on the NHS. This would include delivering food, shopping and medicine, driving patients to appointments and phoning the isolated and vulnerable.
Through a government-funded app usually designed for first responders, these ‘tasks’ are assigned to available volunteers who, while largely untrained, offer mental and social support, in person or over the phone, while at a safe distance. The catch, however was thus — by not strictly abiding to the #stayhome rules, I was theoretically putting myself at risk of contracting COVID-19 as well as spreading it to my one-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. I was desperate to help others. I was also desperate to keep my children safe.
Living in Witney, a small town west of Oxford, meant that calls, tasks and errands began as few and far between — especially when compared to London, where a staggering and disproportionate confirmed case rate makes the capital a hotbed for the disease — and would often culminate in an outreach phone call, the perfect way to help someone else without my own history of mental ill health restricting me.
My first interaction was with a vulnerable member of my local community, who needed emotional support, advice on repairing her phone and warm conversation. She would talk about her cancer remission and, like me, how she missed her children. I would listen. I would try to help. While I was the primary responder, it was clear that there were benefits to be found for us both. Living alone, she was interacting with someone new and getting a glimpse of the outside world, while I was using my position as a volunteer to incite change, however small; pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and contributing to a greater cause by providing help where it was needed.
Over the weeks in April and early May, these calls increased. Sometimes it would be the same person on their other end of the line and our relationships developed. Working as a health mentor for a company that provides tuition on physical fitness, emotional wellbeing and cognitive development in schools. With my in-app status always toggled to ‘AVAILABLE’, I felt ready for anything. This was my wheelhouse. I was making change and I had none of my previous confidence issues.
The app, however, wasn’t without its problems. Reports of Google Maps glitching, continual verification issues and, oddly, a lack of tasks quickly spiked. This meant that I had to take further steps to help those close to me outside of the app. I knew I could do more. This wasn’t self-doubt that had punctuated my past, but instead a drive to be there for those who need it now. Before the pandemic, I had become a qualified level 3 personal trainer and a level 1 football coach. I had seen, first-hand, how sport and fitness can change lives for the better and knew that physical health would play a vital role in how my community and my own family dealt with the mental challenges of temporary seclusion, social distancing and trying to get to grips with a life-threatening virus with symptoms that, in some cases, are non-existent.
What came next was something that, especially at my lowest ebb, I couldn’t have imagined myself doing. I went flyering in my area, to houses in my neighbourhood, with a simple objective: to get as many people outside, socialising and taking part in mild bodyweight workouts at a safe distance. It didn’t have to match the intensity of a CrossFit class or an hour of five-a-side. Instead the aim was to provide an opportunity to meet new people and to encourage a new way of thinking, regardless of the wider problems. At its simplest, it served as a distraction for people, providing a salve for the frustration that stemmed from the government’s response to the pandemic, while boosting endorphins and fostering community spirit.
Eventually, these bodyweight sessions for my local community would become a regular fixture, occurring once or twice a week, with the same group of people taking part, alongside a few newcomers. It felt like I was making a difference and, if the responses to my tweets were anything to go by, I was doing my part for a greater cause by keeping a fraction of the population healthy and happy during a tumultuous period.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no Joe Wicks. Who is? But regular feedback from my newly-formed cohort — “a great way to motivate us all, even a novice like me”, “community exercising gave me such an uplift” and “lockdown is so much more bearable” — pushed me to carry on providing a service that I knew was making a difference, while still respecting safety and community guidelines. No self-doubt. No setbacks. No rejections. It was joy at its purest.
Another Community Workout done and another great turn out. Thanks to everybody who turned up, loads of fun see you again next week. Great for body and mind. #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek #healthylifestyle #HealthyAtHome #workout #community #neighbourhood #keepingyouhealthy pic.twitter.com/o8Ej2DODVQ— Daniel Skidmore (@Dan_HM_Evolve) May 21, 2020
It wasn’t long before Erica, an ambulance technician in Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, found my community workout videos on Twitter and asked for a simple programme she could do at home, to improve her cardiovascular fitness and keep her spirits high. She asked to pay. I refused, of course, and wrote a bodyweight workout guide that would build her stamina and core strength while working around an alarmingly busy schedule that bled between day and night. Frankly, it was the least I could do. We are still working together now.
Looking back, after dozens of fitness classes and outreach calls, I’m proud to be a serving member of the NHS Volunteer Army. As the so-called “curve” begins to flatten in the UK, it’s important to remember that being of service is a role that looks different to everyone. Whether you’re an ICU nurse grappling with ventilators, a key worker building and delivering vital PPE or a health mentor living in a small town near Oxford, we can all do our bit. We can all protect the NHS. We can all save lives.
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