Rona Smith: How LookUK and Vision Foundation helped me tackle loneliness and isolation – Vision Foundation

Rona Smith: How LookUK and Vision Foundation helped me tackle loneliness and isolation

Who am I?

First of all, my name is Rona Smith, I am 23 years-old and I am a Business student at RNC (Royal National College for the Blind). My hobbies/interests include: reading/listening to audiobooks, listening to music, seeing my friends as and when I can, singing/piano, doing my College work and listening to quizzes with my Dad when I am home for the holidays. Things which annoy me include: being late, not being productive meaning not getting enough work done in a day, missing College lessons even if unwell and not knowing what I am doing from one week to the next. I like to know what I am doing as well as being punctual, attending lessons and I like to achieve something productive every day, even if it is just something very small such as creating a to-do list.

My hopes and aspirations

As described earlier, I am in College studying Business/Business Admin at Levels 2 and 3 as well as attending a weekly work placement with the RNC Braille Team and completing a CACHE Level 2 Award in Support Work in Schools. My hopes and dreams/next steps for the future after I leave RNC are to find a job through a local employment support scheme in Oxfordshire working within a Business Admin/office environment. My original hopes and dreams were to work in a school after RNC teaching young visually impaired children Braille, but I do not think this will be realistic straight after College, given I had a bad experience in a school setting last year during a work placement.

This was the result of me lacking in the development of certain skills and professional behavioural codes. I have decided to set my sights lower, given this bad experience I had and knowing what is likely to be realistic for me as I am confident to work in an office on my own, but I am not confident to work in a school setting independently. Look UK did not play a part in this decision, but the work placement did. Also, Look UK did not play a part in the Braille teaching dream either. I was inspired to work in a school as a TA by my own very first Support Worker who worked with me from the age of 2 to the age of 11, basically through primary school before I left for secondary school. We learnt everything together, including Braille and she has inspired me to work in a school, but I may explore this option when I am more confident in a workplace environment. Initially after RNC, I had wanted to go to University to explore my SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) support work career. Look UK did play a part in this, because a group on Brightside was set up of current and former University students to share their experiences with those considering it.

I was paired with a mentor who was going to University already. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, this gave me some time to reflect on my personal strengths and weaknesses. On reflection, I do not think University is the right type of learning environment for me, given that I sometimes struggle with the workload of a Level 3 course. I feel that I would struggle with a University course to the point where I would not complete it, because I am too overwhelmed and stressed to do so. I have since had some careers advice at RNC and have discovered other routes into SEND support work, but I have decided not to go to University due to my own stress levels and mental health if I was to get too stressed as this could cause illness. However, if the fact I have not gone to University proves to be a barrier later on in life, I might consider the Open University, because I could have the option to study part-time meaning this could be less stressful for me. This would be because I could have longer to complete the qualification. My main focus is to move out to live independently and get a job with the local employment scheme I mentioned earlier called the Oxfordshire Employment Service. Furthermore, I will explore other routes into SEND support work when I feel I am more confident to work in that environment as this is still my dream.

My visit to Jamie’s Farm

My first visit to Jamie’s Farm went very well. I cleaned out and brushed horses, ate a very filling lunch cooked by some of my peers, fed the sheep and cows and talked about things with new people. I learnt a lot from the farm staff. My favourite part of the day was feeding the sheep and cows these Muesli-like nut grains which felt like cereal, because I got to just tip the big buckets upside-down into the huge troughs. I just wish the day could have been longer. It was very different to other experiences/activities I have had with Look UK, because most activities I have done in the past have either been remote such as music groups or indoors such as in a hall at a venue. I feel this was the most active and fun in-person experience I have had with Look UK over the years.

The main takeaway from the visit to Jamie’s Farm was to try and meet new people/socialise as much as you can for your mental health. I do not always make time for friends, because I prefer to sit in my room to study and be productive which makes me feel good. However, I do get stressed a lot and I think this is because I do not socialise enough. They have a bar at RNC which is open to students 3 days a week, but I do not often go there unless there are quizzes on for me to do with a team. However, I have missed the last 2 or 3 quizzes at the bar due to having too much work to do towards the end of this term. I think I should make an effort to go to the student bar more often, maybe set a goal for at least once a week to enable me to socialise more with my peers. Also, I will sign up for more weekend activities this term. This is how I will apply more socialising skills in my everyday life from Jamie’s Farm. Moreover, I got to work with some students at RNC who I do not normally work with as we do not have any classes together. This showed me that it is sometimes good to work with people who you do not normally work with to have different perspectives on life or a task such as different personalities working together. To take this into my everyday life, I will try and work with peers I do not normally work with in lessons instead of just working with the same person all the time especially for pair tasks. This will help me to build my team work skills which are a struggle for me and it will help me gain different perspectives on life/tasks within the group.

Look UK over the years

My relationship with Look UK has spanned 7 or 8 years from late 2016 to today with varying levels of support and I have taken part in many activities. Firstly, I was part of the first ever cohort of mentees for the Look UK mentoring scheme which was set up in 2016. I had 3 mentors on and off in the space of 4 or 5 years due to delays with setting me up and mentors leaving. This support was designed to help me consider my future such as University as well as supporting me to deal with issues I was having in school/College including exam stresses and Tas leaving.

Support through COVID-19

During the Covid pandemic and associated lockdowns of 2020, Look UK provided remote support though Zoom such as music groups and forums for young people to talk/play games. They also hosted several live events through Zoom such as the Christmas concert where families could join the meeting with us by purchasing a ticket and donate to the charity whilst watching us perform. This support was really helpful during lockdowns, because it gave me a break from College work.  This was all I felt I could really do due to strict rules on socialising especially for vulnerable individuals. I had to shield, because I was on one of the clinically vulnerable lists meaning I was not allowed to leave the house at all due to my medical conditions/needs. This meant that the forums were the only way I could socialise, because even remote lessons in my classes were not always possible as I experienced access issues with Teams when clicking on the links to join group lessons. This means my lessons were one-to-one with only my TA in the meeting, because she would just call me rather than setting up formal meetings in the early days where I had the issues. However, these issues were later resolved for the second and third lockdowns. Look UK staff were always happy to help the VI young people or families set up their Zoom Software on their devices and they could do test meetings with you to troubleshoot any issues. They even made an online article with steps for using Zoom which was really helpful to learn about for accessibility purposes. Joining the regular forums made me pace my work so I did not complete everything in one day which would lead to not having enough to do in the week. Additionally, they distracted me from the fact that I could not do activities in-person.

I have done activities in-person with Look such as theatre trips and going to a Thomas Pocklington Trust Event where we were considering University with mentors as well as  some mentee meet and greet events with mentors. I tried to attend in-person events with Look UK as and when I could travel to venues with family support, because I cannot travel independently or confidently, especially on buses and trains.

When I finished my mentoring in 2021, Look UK helped refer me to another VI support charity in order for me to continue to do forums for young people. This is because many of the forums I had been doing during COVID-19 were actually targeted for young people aged under 18. However, Look UK had allowed me to attend them due to an understanding that I needed the mental health support provided by the forums during those unprecedented times. However, I have still been in contact with Look for the Jamie’s Farm visit, referred to as an activity by the RNC Activities Co-Ordinator and I may be doing a morning/afternoon of work experience with the charity during my work experience week in June. Also, I am working with the charity’s Hereford Activities programme to help run some events for VI young people aged between 10-17 years. This is for an event planning unit I am doing for my Level 3 Business qualification.

Mental Health Support

The mental health and well-being support I have received from Look UK includes the remote support I mentioned earlier as well as their mentoring scheme. These helped me to overcome stresses and issues, think about my future in a less overwhelming way as well as pacing my workload throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. As well as this, in-person events had a positive impact on my mental health/well-being, because I was able to meet new people and socialise which is important to me as described previously.

The best thing about Look as a support network is that there are new people joining all the time. This includes staff, mentors and other VI young people meaning there are always opportunities to meet/socialise with new people. Also, they support families through their various activities and parent support group, where there are not many other VI support charities who do this. I feel this is good, because a diagnosis of sight loss can be just as distressing for families as well as the VI young people who have been diagnosed. It could even be more distressing for families, because they would need to help the young VI people to prepare for their futures as well as schooling. Finally, siblings would need to learn how to include their VI brother or sister in activities at home which could be hard for them to understand.

This is my story of being involved with Look UK over the years.