After lacing up her trainers, Olivia Strong closed the front door of her family home in Edinburgh and went for a jog around the neighbourhood. As a keen runner, this was nothing out of the ordinary – only the streets were noticeably busier that day in early March. Coronavirus-induced lockdown had just hit the UK.
Large-scale events like the London Marathon (which raises millions for charities each year) announced that they’d been postponed, and the news became flooded with stories about the NHS struggling to cope with patients and a lack of PPE. Suddenly, due to the new ‘one hour of outdoor exercise per day rule’, plenty of others had dusted off their trainers too, having temporarily said goodbye to the gym.
It was as she was pounding the pavements that Olivia, a freelance documentary maker, had a brainwave. “I suddenly found myself with all this extra free time and knew I wanted to help,” she explains. “I saw all these other people out for a run and thought ‘How great would it be if we could apply marathon principles to our daily exercise quota and get people to both exercise and raise money for the NHS?’.”
This germ of a plan blossomed into full fruition when she consulted her friends over WhatsApp and bounced ideas off of her siblings post-run. “The general consensus was that asking people to run 5km and donate £5 to a Just Giving page hopefully felt like doable amounts.”
She got to work “spamming friends and family”, nominating them and encouraging them to take on the challenge (then nominate five others), with the hopes of raising £5000 for NHS Charities Together. Two furloughed friends stepped in to offer their skills too; India Pappalardo-Strachan created a logo and Alice Taylor coined the name Run For Heroes, then set about contacting the press. And so ‘Run 5, Donate 5, Nominate 5’ was born.
The power of social media
Since that day in March, Run For Heroes has raised over £5 million for its intended causes (and counting). In fact, it smashed its £5000 target in four days, and has also seen people donating to smaller charities (who’ve also been struggling for funding since the pandemic hit).
Olivia’s idea has morphed into a lockdown-defining moment. She’s the reason you’ve been seeing your friends (and famous faces, such as Ellie Goulding, Princess Eugenie and Jessie Ware) posting sweaty selfies, holding an outstretched palm up to the camera, tagging their pals to go out for a run.
“Everything took off organically, just through people tagging their friends on social media. I couldn’t believe it when Ellie Goulding posted about the campaign,” laughs Olivia. “I said to my sister ‘Oh my god, Ellie Goulding has sent me a message!’ and my sister was like, ‘Err, no she sent Run For Heroes a message…’.”
The campaign has raised enough for six new sleep pods for frontline healthcare workers and provided bountiful amounts of mental health support, through care packages. “A Scottish doctor contacted the Run For Heroes page saying ‘This pandemic isn’t the worst thing we’ve faced, but that’s only because there’s been so much support’ and thanked us for setting up the campaign.”
Those messages, along with others from people saying, “Thank you for getting me to exercise, it’s worked wonders for my mental health”, are what makes it all worthwhile, says Olivia. Run For Heroes shows no signs of slowing down either, now that lockdown rules are easing up. In fact, it’s now popping up on the feeds of social media users in America, Canada, Spain and beyond too.
Another woman who knows the power of social media is Annemarie Plas, a Londoner who moved over to the UK from Amsterdam a couple of years ago, with her then two-week-old son. “When I first moved here, the NHS helped me so much, they ensured my family had all we needed.”
She first heard about the idea of applauding key workers through a Zoom call with friends, some of whom work as nurses in Holland, who said that hearing the regular clapping over there was a real morale boost for them. “I was inspired by the Dutch round of applause and was convinced it’d work here.” Annemarie wanted the regular clap to recognise all frontline workers - not only NHS staffers, but carers, cleaners, delivery drivers, supermarket staff, “and all the others who keep our world turning”.
That same day, she produced a virtual flyer to be shared on social media, set up a Clap For Our Carers UK website and a hashtag, which she then pushed out to friends and followers with a simple message: “Please share.” Her plea reached the likes of Victoria Beckham and Cheryl within hours, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex who were eager to support.
Almost a week later, on the 25 March, Annemarie and her husband cracked open their living room window, spoon and pan in hand, as the clock inched closer to 8pm. She hoped that her neighbours would be joining in with her – “we had a live connection set up with Sky News” – and planned to “create as much noise as possible”. When the clock hit 8pm, her street erupted into cheers, clangs and hollering, as did thousands of others across the country.
“I never expected the hashtag to take off the way it has,” Annemarie says. “It’s a testament to the UK that they’re willing to get behind and support a worthy cause.”
Food for thought
For Ayesha Pakravan-Ovey, the coronavirus pandemic saw her newly established catering company The Plattery (which scored clients like Facebook and Virgin in its first year of business) hit a brick wall. All orders were cancelled, as birthday parties, business meetings and leaving dos were crossed out in diaries. A few weeks before lockdown was officially announced, when supermarket shelves were being raided by the panicked general public, Ayesha knew she wanted to do something to help those left empty-handed.
Having access to wholesaler memberships meant Ayesha didn’t need to rely on supermarkets. “It almost felt selfish that I had access to all this food – I had a duty to help people and share it.” Her solution? Using her skills to build a non-profit organisation, Vital Meals, to deliver healthy food to anybody who in need.
She put £600 of her own money in and began posting on Facebook forums. “An elderly gentleman’s granddaughter contacted me, the first 10 Vital Meals went to him.”
Fast forward and today she’s expanded across London, with the help of Crowdfunding, a team of 17 volunteers and Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing association “who donated us their commercial kitchen – an absolute game changer” and has delivered over 4000 meals.
“We’ve fed a family who had to choose between electricity and putting dinner on the table, domestic abuse survivors, a young man with debilitating mental health issues and the parents of a premature baby, who couldn’t leave home as their child is classed as vulnerable to COVID-19.”
But what happens next?
Now that lockdown rules are starting to lift, what will happen to these incredible campaigns? For Olivia, Annemarie and Ayesha their good deeds and sparkling initiatives are only the beginning.
“I hoped that Clap For Our Carers would make people realise that we need each other and that frontline workers are the backbone of our society,” says Annemarie, who yesterday lead the tenth and final 8pm clap. “We would be lost without them.” Although the weekly round of applause has ended, Annemarie’s work hasn’t; her new plan is to work towards creating an annual Clap For Our Carers Day.
Her dream is that on 26 March each year, households up and down the country will fling open their windows once more, race to their doorsteps (saucepans at the ready) and give thanks to frontline workers all over again. She hopes that the nation will remember the huge sacrifices that have been made over the last couple of months and take those learnings into the future.
For Ayesha, Vital Meals has become more than just a lockdown passion project. She now hopes to make it a permanent part of her business model. “I have so many ideas, from a community kitchen to a cookery school. Vital Meals will remain in place until the very last person needs us. I think there was a serious problem with food and supplies pre-lockdown and the virus has only placed a magnifying glass on the issue.”
As for Run For Heroes, Olivia has teamed up with the likes of popular running app Strava to create new challenges, based on increasing the speed of your run, and hopes to continue rolling out fitness-based fund-raising ideas in future too.
We may be edging closer to a renewed sense of normality, but these three women and their three powerful initiatives will continue to serve as a reminder of the lessons that can take a lifetime to learn. That communities are mighty when they pull together. That key workers need to be thanked (and fairly rewarded) for a job well done. That doing something that may feel little, can go a long, long way.
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