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Story added: 19th March 2021

How virtual sessions and a volunteering role has helped Alex stay connected throughout lockdown

Prior to the pandemic, you’d have been hard pressed to find a day in 21-year-old Alex Fearne’s calendar where he wasn’t doing something.

Never one to shy away from an activity, a regular week for Alex involved swimming, sessions at his gym with his personal trainer, and whizzing down the dry-slopes at Norwich’s SnowSports Club.

Following his family’s move to Norfolk four years ago, he has more or less graced the register of every Community Sports Foundation programme available to him, at some time or another. Saturday mornings were spent with the Norwich City Down’s Syndrome Football team in training or fixtures, and he’s also attended PAN football sessions, multi-sport holiday camp sessions and dance sessions with the All Stars.

Alex was making big strides in his work life, too. Having attended college, he had landed a part-time job washing in the kitchen at UEA, and loved everything that the job gave him: the routine, being part of the team, even the commute on the bus.

“We’re very lucky,” Alex’s dad Andrew reflects. “Alex never says ‘no’. He’ll always have a go at something.”

However, inevitably, the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown in March last year put an abrupt end to this busy routine – work stopped, and Alex’s once packed timetable was empty.

Andrew and mum Angela were concerned about how Alex would cope with the dramatic change to his routine.

“With lockdown, we are lucky.  We’ve got a garden, and a rowing machine and treadmill in our house. We’re only a stone’s throw from the city centre. Compared to most, very lucky. That said, as you know, lockdown is tiring and hard.”

But an unexpected volunteering opportunity at The Nest, and the Foundation’s commitment to continue engaging virtually with its participants helped to fill this void.

Darren Hunter, the Foundation’s Disability Development Manager, and his department pulled together a comprehensive programme of online session for their participants, including weekly bingo sessions, quizzes, strength & conditioning, football and dance sessions.

Though Alex often finds it difficult to communicate, in the virtual sessions he thrived, and rarely missed one.

“[On Zoom]…he loves to participate – and while that doesn’t mean he participates verbally – he just loves being there, and being part of the gang,” said Andrew.

The Fearnes also took part in the Children in Need funded Find n’ Seek programme, a simple but fun challenge, designed to make walking fun.

When restrictions were lifted in the summer the family were given an additional focus – and passion. They took up a volunteering opportunity to assist Chris, the grounds man at the Foundation’s new community hub, The Nest

“It’s been a lifesaver, not just for Alex but also for us,” said Andrew. “At The Nest there was always so much work to be done, but no pressure on us at all. It was ‘do as much or as little as you like’. We were digging, planting trees, sweeping leaves and weeding. Getting our heads down, being in the fresh air, helping out, getting exercise and cups of tea – it was fantastic.

“We were going down three times a week on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays. It was such a great routine for Alex, but also for us as a family.”

While the current lockdown put a temporary hiatus on the volunteering at The Nest, the online sessions have continued to help Alex stay connected and fit.

Andrew continues: “He wakes up, and has something to look forward to. Wednesday is bingo day.  It really helps to establish a routine, and keeps him away from the television and Playstation.

“We look forward to it too, as parents. Angela would normally be hoovering and cleaning when it’s bingo time, but it stops her in her tracks. We love the quizzes, too. We’re not particularly competitive as a family but Alex always keeps a close eye on the scores, and last week, when he saw we finished second last, in 21st place, his face fell! We’re normally up there in tenth or eleventh.”

Looking ahead, Alex says he can’t wait for football to return on a Saturday and to get back to his new role at The Nest, while also hoping that some of the virtual offerings will stay on following the end of lockdown.

Andrew reflects: “Darren, Steph [Powell] and the team at the Foundation play such an important role in keeping Alex active and engaged with his peers, and for that we can’t thank them enough. We see and feel the benefit every week.”

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