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Virtual hospice provided much needed support to children and families during Covid-19

Tags: Article, Case Study, Blog

23rd March 2021

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Written by Jill Cook, Volunteering Development Manager, Children's Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS).

Children’s Hospices Across Scotland’s (CHAS) number one priority during the pandemic has been ensuring that we continue to deliver care in the safest way possible. While we effectively cover the whole of Scotland, we have two main hospices that we chiefly operate out of: Robin’s House in the village of Balloch, West of Scotland, and Rachel’s House located in the East at Kinross. Including our CHAS at home service, we had just over 300 employees and a further 900 volunteers who unfortunately had to stand down at the start of the pandemic. With our reach extending across all of Scotland, we needed to mobilise the team incredibly quickly in order to create a virtual hospice that could continue to support families and children in need. After our team had converted online, we quickly decided on the new services that we needed to offer to our service users. What followed was the introduction of a range of virtual services, some new and some pre-existing, that successfully managed to support our communities across Scotland.

Calls of kindness

We began our virtual transition by dedicating some of our staff to making ‘Kindness Calls’. Staff would phone allocated families once or twice a week to offer telephone support and identify if they had any additional needs that needed to be addressed by our team. It was clear from some of the calls that many families were facing difficulties. Some were struggling to get food supplies, others were unable to pick up urgent prescriptions, and many needed various pieces of tech for home-schooling. We were fortunate enough to have access to a number of laptops and iPads which we delivered to many families in need. Evidently, many families needed extra support during these challenging times.

We additionally organised virtual visits for families and children. For example, for pre-school children, we had a wonderful virtual bear-hunt hosted through Rachel House, accompanied by a virtual reading of Michael Rosen’s classic, ‘We’re All Going On a Bear Hunt’. We also held virtual weekends full of activities and games for both children aged from 8-11 years as well as for older teenagers.

Many of our volunteers helped us set up a letter writing service, which saw 43 children receive fortnightly mail written just for them. For many of the children, this was the first time they had received letters and we included fun things like puzzles and stickers for them to use. Additionally, we set up a storytelling service for children where some of our fantastic volunteers would upload their readings to our Youtube channel while others would do storytelling on a one-to-one basis with families, usually done over Zoom. It was really lovely to see the relationships develop between our volunteers and families. The team also really appreciated seeing one of our volunteers being celebrated on Helpforce’s Wall of Fame recently; they are one of the hundreds of volunteers who have helped make such a positive impact on so many families during the pandemic.

One of our volunteers said: “There’s nothing like sending and receiving chirpy, positive handwritten letters to raise your spirits and brighten up your day in these restrictive times. That’s been my experience of the volunteer letter writing with CHAS. I know the nine - year - old I write to enjoys the letters and puzzles I send to her. This in turn makes me feel as though I’m doing something worthwhile, especially as she has had to spend long periods away from school and her friends due to the pandemic. I love preparing and writing my letters which focus on things I know she enjoys as well as adding personal anecdotes and celebrating different festivals and seasons of the year. The fact that she replies is an added bonus!”
Letter for vol
Letter to child1
Examples of letters from volunteers and patients

Existing Services

Alongside our new virtual services, we knew that it was necessary to transition many of our existing core services so that they could be delivered online. With our new virtual hospice, the first of its kind in the country, we have managed to deliver many of our formerly in-person programmes digitally. Overall, we’ve delivered support to over 670 families, offering a range of helpful services. This has included individual work, benefits advice, one-to-one support as well as many social sessions hosted on Zoom. We’ve also held weekly art and music therapy sessions over Zoom which have been really helpful for families.

In collaboration with the charity Hearts & Minds, we’ve had their amazing Clown doctors deliver over 500 hours of jokes, laughs and smiles — a welcome distraction and they’ve been incredibly effective at putting smiles on children’s faces. We also held our annual ‘Remembering Days’ for Rachel’s and Robin’s House online for the first time in 2020. It gave us a much-needed opportunity to take some time and reflect on those we had lost recently, lighting a candle for every child that had passed away in the last year. The day also featured lots of readings, music, and activities that families could do at home. Similarly, we were able to provide our bereavement support virtually and we hope to continue our in-person ‘Walk and Talk’ sessions as restrictions begin to ease.

Julie on You Tube
Volunteer Julie Robertson telling stories to children via Youtube

Reflections

Setting up a virtual hospice during this pandemic has taught us many valuable lessons. Our virtual visits have demonstrated the importance of connecting families and young people with volunteers. It has been incredibly beneficial putting people in touch who wouldn’t typically have met. The families and young people using our services are telling us that it’s working for them and they understand why it’s impossible for them to come in for respite visits, though we hope to be able to have them soon.

I believe that high-quality care can be delivered virtually and it has now subsequently been embedded as part of our normal delivery service. It is important that volunteering is integrated fully into regular service development, for when you clearly demonstrate the impact, it has a direct effect on fundraising efforts. It is clear to us that virtual delivery is here to stay and we believe it should never be viewed as second best. We have seen the help volunteers have provided to numerous children and families during this pandemic and they have been invaluable. To quote a piece of feedback from one of the parents who we have helped:

We feel more connected with CHAS than ever; the clown doctors, the music sessions & the group catch-ups are just fantastic. It makes my day to hear my child’s laughter — priceless.”