The Breakfast Club - It’s been called ‘the most memorable hour spent during lockdown’. Fancy trying it?
The year 2020 will go down as the one in which the world truly went online. Stuck at home in lockdown, everyone has had to improvise, adapt and overcome when it’s come to staying connected. Blesma has been no exception, shifting a huge number of its activities into the virtual realm. One of the most successful has been a link up between Members and residents of the Royal Hospital Chelsea; the world-famous Chelsea Pensioners.
A Blesma/Royal Hospital connection existed before lockdown, with a number of meetings at the wonderful building in London having already been arranged. But after COVID-19 struck, the initiative went online.
“We had been hosting a Breakfast Club a year before coronavirus, inviting other veterans for breakfast in our Great Hall as part of a national scheme to get veterans to meet up around the UK,” explains Frankie Howell, a Captain at the Royal Hospital. “But when lockdown began, we needed to reach out to people and our Governor, General Sir Adrian Bradshaw, who is also Blesma’s Chairman, suggested linking up with the Association.”
Since then, several group video calls have taken place, with Members and Pensioners being matched by their regiment and, where possible, dates of service. They may be strangers at the start of the call, but it doesn’t take long for the military banter to start flowing and, by the end of the hour, firm friendships have been established.
It was the most memorable and enjoyable hour I spent during lockdown!” says Blesma Member Robin Smithers, 65, from Chelmsford, a former Grenadier Guard who lost his legs recently due to a vascular condition.
“I really enjoyed the call. There were four of us and we got on brilliantly and had such a good laugh. It was refreshing to go back into that old military mentality, all telling funny stories about our past Sergeant Majors!
“We all fitted in so well that we could have been in a Staff Mess anywhere. The Guardsman mentality is unique – if it stands still we’ll polish it, if it runs we’ll shoot it! I’d love to do another session.”
THEN THE BANTER BEGAN BOUNCING
The Royal Hospital residents are relishing the experience, too. Dave Cootes, 75, was one of the Chelsea Pensioners who spoke to Robin.
“We had a really good chat, and at the end we were all saying we’d love to do it again,” says Dave. “We talked about where we’d been and what we’d done with our regiments. It started off gently, but then the banter began bouncing. It took us right back – to all the things that went wrong and all the mates who caused chaos!
“The call gave me something similar to being a Chelsea Pensioner; comradeship. One of the reasons I’m here is to try and put something back into the community of veterans. We all sometimes feel a bit isolated, so connecting via a call is a great idea. It was nice sharing what it’s like being at the Royal Hospital, too. It’s a brilliant place for an ex-serviceman when he’s left on his own. It’s the best thing I ever did!”
To become a Chelsea Pensioner, you need to be over 65 years of age, have served in the British Army as a Regular soldier for at least 12 years (even if you later took a commission), and not have a spouse (both men and women are eligible).
Captain Frankie Howell says that the calls have also been a good way of pointing out the potential suitability of the Royal Hospital to Blesma Members. “If you’re a veteran with limb loss, this place is set up for you,” he says, “but a lot of people don’t know the rules about getting in.”
Martin Gwillim, the National Outreach Coordinator at Blesma, has overseen the initiative for the Association. He says it has been such a success during lockdown that it is set to be extended.
“Frankie gives me a list of names and potted histories of the Chelsea Pensioners involved, and I try to match them up with our Members,” he says. “Finding ideal matches can take a little bit of time, but 20 Members have taken part so far and they’ve all had great chats. Numbers and details have been swapped, we’ve had two Padres chatting, and an ex-Dragoon Guard has even had a personalised mug made for someone he met on a call.”
NO NEED TO BE TECH SAVVY
Martin stresses that you don’t need to know about computers to get involved. “That’s where our Outreach Officers have helped,” he says. “If you’ve not used video calls before, we can get you set up. This is all part of a wider trend that can do your mental health a tremendous amount of good, especially if you are isolated. Blesma is already bringing Members together on calls and holding virtual coffee mornings. Members are chewing the fat on Zoom, sharing lockdown stories, seeing buddies and meeting others they don’t know. The plan is to continue with schemes like this.”
Robin Smithers certainly intends to carry on. “I’m doing loads online now,” he says. “I use Blesma Connects – my wife can’t believe it because it is so out of character for me. I’m quite private normally, but I really enjoy it! I’ve also done a breathwork course with an American teacher, which was brilliant, and now I’m doing yoga courses online. I’ve never done anything like this but because I’m high risk I’ve not been out at all since lockdown. If it wasn’t for Blesma, I don’t know what I’d be doing. It has been a massive benefit!”