We’re all missing Lakers desperately. The craic is always great there, high-fiving when you come in, jokes and laughter and no shortage of hugs. All that has been stopped for months. Instead, the building is quiet. There’s a lonely feel to the place.
Lakers is the club I work with in Bray. I’ve written about it before. I’m the chair of a voluntary board stuffed with great people — all of them committed to the growth of the club and determined to make sure it survives every crisis. And they’ve been through a few.
We spend a lot of time at board meetings trying to make sure that the governance is as good as it can be. That’s not just a present pressure for Irish charities (Lakers is a charity), it is the future. In years to come charities will stand or fall in Ireland to the extent that they can be trusted.
People who donate to charities are demanding higher and higher standards of accountability — and that’s as it should be. We went through a period when some Irish charities became almost a byword for all sorts of financial scandal and mismanagement, and it eroded trust in a huge way. The good, responsible organisations — and there are thousands of them — know that they need to be judged, not just on what they do, but how they manage the money generously given to them.
Thankfully, we spend our time at meetings doing a lot more than that. Lakers is a club for people with an intellectual disability. And the word “club” is at the heart of it. It had become, on a shoe-string, a significant provider of day services for a lot of its 400 members.
But it is the members who run it. They decide the scope of the club’s activities, they sit on the board, they make sure that the members' interests are always at the top of the club’s agenda. And they provide the fun, the empathy, and the atmosphere that pervades the club’s building in Bray.
When the pandemic started, the club moved all of its activities onto Zoom. Isn’t Zoom a weird thing? The world discovered Zoom around the same time as the pandemic discovered the world. And it went from being a little company from Silicon Valley to a monster almost overnight.
According to the internet, Zoom went public as a video conferencing tool in April 2019, and had a successful launch on the stock market. That made it worth $16 billion. A year later, six months after Covid-19, the company was worth $67 billion. Mind you, every time a new vaccine appears, the value of Zoom’s shares goes down. We need Zoom, it seems, much more than we like it.
I was at a particularly difficult Zoom meeting recently, when one of the participants spent his entire time effortlessly patronising the rest of us. Afterwards, another colleague remarked that one of the most dangerous things to do on Zoom is roll your eyes to heaven. You can get away with it in a crowded room, but not when your face is the only thing visible.
But Zoom, it seems, is one of the tools of resilience. When Lakers had to switch all their work to Zoom, it was a real worry on two levels. First of all, it really stretched the skills and creativity of the people who work in Lakers, and especially its instructors. They were used to a high level of personal interaction with members. They knew their moods and behaviours, and they knew how to challenge them. How could you replicate that on a series of screens?
We needn’t have worried. The team rose to the challenge magnificently. There’s nothing quite like the fun and chaos of a cookery class on Zoom, nor the intensity with which our members approach an arts class. Drop-in classes, fitness, the commitment to wellbeing and de-stressing — I’ve been astonished at the creativity the entire team has brought to their work.
Through the classes there’s a real opportunity, and time, to keep relationships and friendships going — and that’s the thing our members miss most. They’ve managed to put 32 classes online every single week for members (over six days of the week) — and they’ve developed quizzes, bingo, music and dance, and all sorts of ways for members to learn and grow.
There’s even a Lakers storytime that younger members can access through the Lakers Facebook page (one of the team does it brilliantly every week, and there’s a fat oul fella with a beard who fills in for him now and again).
There are other members of the team whose responsibility it is to maintain the building and to make sure that our tiny fleet of buses is ready to roll when the pandemic ends. They also take their work incredibly seriously. I had occasion recently to pop into the building (unoccupied) to pick something up, and wasn’t surprised to discover it was spotless — ready to welcome members back whenever.
But the other worry was how would our members react to this new world. It has to be said that it hasn’t worked for everyone, and it doesn’t work all the time. The dreaded broadband is an issue for some, for example.
But an extraordinary number of our members have added the management of Zoom to their set of skills. You might worry that people with an intellectual disability would never be able to master the bits of detail involved in joining a meeting — but most of them are better than I am.
If I get an email with a link to Zoom that I can just touch, I’m grand. But ask me to find and enter an 11 digit meeting ID, followed by a 6 digit passcode, and I will inevitably be late for the meeting, sweating and swearing and complaining about the technology. Our members just get on with it, and it’s really rare that any of them are late. They have a way of bringing the same craic with them on to Zoom as they do when they arrive at the club’s home.
Resilience is one of the hardest human traits to understand. We know you can’t teach it, although it’s easy to crush. And we know, especially at times like this, how important it is. That’s why it was so vital for us to try to keep as much work going as possible — our members and their families need that support.
But what I didn’t realise is that it takes resilience to build resilience. And that’s what Lakers has taught me. It is not easy, week after week, to work alone to devise online classes full of fun and learning for other people. And it is not easy to be alone when you’re naturally extrovert and outgoing, as a lot of our members are.
But our team and our members have turned crisis into opportunity through their shared resilience. They’ll learn a huge amount from this, and they’ll be closer when it’s over. If our members can do that, so can the rest of us. And when the time comes for the craic to start again, that will be really mighty!