Necessity and Invention. By Keith White

Necessity, as we all know, is said to be the mother of invention. And this has been confirmed by the technological and social innovations spawned during wars. This line of thoughts leads on logically to the question of whether this is true in, say, times of plague. I am not sure what creative ideas came out of the Black Death (1342-1353) and Spanish Flu (1918-1920), but it does seem as if COVID-19 is spawning quite a lot. With this in mind, I thought it might be worth sharing a few examples from this neck of the woods, in the hope that readers of TTCJ will be forthcoming with what they have discovered over the same period, and under similar conditions and constraints, wherever they happen to live around the world.

We have found that management, board meetings and supervision have been able to function using platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Attendance has been good, and by and large they have worked well. It’s not the same as being together face to face, but certainly better than not meeting at all. Serious or sustained discussion or debate do not work, but provided everyone has the relevant papers beforehand, you can get a sense of how the majority feels and make informed decisions.

One great serendipity has emerged from the first online sessions of our centre for children with cerebral palsy. These are conducted from the usual, dedicated classroom at Mill Grove, for one or more children and families in their own homes. Prior to these sessions, each family had been provided with the necessary specialist equipment. The idea then is to get the best of both worlds. Up to a maximum of two children/families can attend in person at Mill Grove, while others join in via Zoom. There is interaction between everyone, whether at home or in the training area. By rotating who attends week by week, each child gets the feel of being present, as well as finding out how things look from either end of the camera.

The added value of this arrangement is the engagement of families in their own homes, so that they can continue activities and exercises as much as they wish after the sessions have finished. The feedback is that some children are making more progress in this way than before. I checked this out with a physiotherapist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, and she confirmed the potential of this form of distance learning.

To make enough safe space available for these sessions, the Pre-School at Mill Grove has migrated to its outdoor classroom and made this the site of all its operations. And it’s working a treat. I have been sampling the atmosphere and have found that both children and teachers are lapping it up. Parents applaud seeing some of the adventures and experiences that their children have been enjoying, admitting that they were denied some of them when they were a similar age. And to see everyone caked in thick mud after a session dedicated to water play gave real evidence that they were not outside as a substitute venue: but rather up to their wastes in the real thing! Mud, mud, glorious mud: on a very hot day there’s nothing quite like it for cooling the blood!

Meanwhile we have been able to celebrate the birthdays of several of the younger members of the extended family of Mill Grove, by having them outside and appropriately socially distanced. There are sometimes challenges in trying to light the candles, but with facilities for football, Twister, basketball cycling and water play, the celebrations have gone with a swing.

Each year in the early summer we have an annual gathering of the Mill Grove clan from around the world. This year it had to be completely re-thought. We recorded a service devised and executed by the youngsters, followed by a two-hour Zoom session joined by people from places as far afield as Ethiopia, the USA and Switzerland. Our website was brimming with clips and greetings. It looks as if such gatherings will never be the same again. Many connected this time who would otherwise have been unable to do so. We missed refreshments together of course, not least the barbecue!

Several of the families whose children are at the pre-school, or who are part of the extended community of Mill Grove, have been struggling to make ends meet. And this has brought our food store into its own. We are given harvest produce from 40 or more churches and schools each autumn, and with produce carefully stacked and kept in date, it meant that we have been able to supply these families with exactly what they need, without any fuss or stigma. We have been conscious that a number of organisations such as restaurants and pubs have food and drink that has been at risk of passing its sell-by date, and we have been able to make sure that this doesn’t happen to ours.

One of the things we support in a nearby village is a junior school assembly each Monday morning of term time. When the school had to be closed, we started up the assembly by Zoom. There were some teething problems, but before long they began to take on a life of their own. A huge bonus is the fact that we are communicating with parents and siblings in the households taking part, and that increases the community that we are seeking to support.

These are a few examples to kick-start what I hope will be a sharing of ideas from other residential communities.

This process of reflection has led me to wonder how much analysis there has been of virtual therapeutic communities worldwide, before and during COVID-19. I sincerely hope that one or more Erving Goffman-type sociologists will emerge funded and resourced to explore this phenomenon.

Meanwhile my interim conclusion is that there could well be some new hybrids emerging. No one is seriously imagining that face to face relationships and community will become a thing of the past, but creative new possibilities are opening up. And would you believe it, as I was writing this piece today, I heard a rendering of Thomas Tallis’ “If Ye Love Me” by the Kings’ Singers. It was a performance of the highest quality, made by six individuals each in their own home, and using Zoom.  Of course, it requires musicianship beyond most of us, but these socially isolated individuals formed an ensemble of exquisite harmony and timing. If this can be done with such demanding music, then there must be scope for groups seeking quality communication in word, and perhaps even body language.

What will the new normal look like for therapeutic communities I wonder?

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