Here’s why a regular chat in a changing world became my best lockdown medicine

A man and a younger man sitting at a table signing to each other. There are coffee cups on the table.

During a global pandemic, in a different city, speaking a different language, I made a new friend.

I had little experience in British Sign Language, which is a language in its own right. I also had no idea how to volunteer virtually. So in March 2020, at the start of lockdown, I surprised myself and took a leap of faith. I decided to volunteer as George’s Virtual Buddy. It was the best thing I ever did.

I first met George in 2019 on a Sense Holiday. It was the first time I had ever been, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. We were all meeting for the first time, and I could see that George felt just as nervous as I did. George’s first language is British Sign Language so I introduced myself as best as I could and he signed back. He was too fast for me to keep up, so I introduced him to the volunteer who was working with him and carried on.

As the week went on, we got to know each other better and learned how to communicate with each other. We bonded over rock climbing and other great activities that the holiday offered. When it was all over, I could tell we were both sad to say goodbye.

Fast forward to the middle of 2020 and the pandemic had caused a number of lockdowns in the UK. Lots of disabled people were feeling isolated, so Sense set up Virtual Buddying. Knowing that George and I got on well, Sense asked me if I wanted to be his buddy. I was very hesitant.

A man sitting next to a young man behind a desk.

An hour a week: how hard could it be?

At the holiday, George’s volunteer was a BSL interpreter who would help me if I was struggling with my signing. While we got on well together, I was worried that he would get frustrated at my level of communication. Thankfully, the Virtual Buddying team gave me the confidence to give it a go. After all, we’d made it through a whole week before. How hard could an hour a week be?

The first session seemed like we were being introduced for the first time again. Both of us were trying to figure out how best to communicate over a video call using a mixture of sign language and the chat box. As the hour went on, George started teaching me new signs. It was great – having that hour helped me improve my BSL and communication skills, all while connecting better with George.

As the weeks went on, I carried on chatting to George online for an hour a week. Sometimes there wasn’t much to talk about, so we would do an activity. The Virtual Buddying team were great at giving us lots of fun things to do. We had a great time painting mugs, making puppets and even having a home disco with some of the other buddies.

A regular chat in a changing world

All of these were really fun but, I soon realised, not as important as the hour spent talking. The world was changing so quickly and it was becoming difficult to make sense of. I was feeling increasingly isolated from my loved ones and we had no idea what the next day or week might bring. What was certain was that despite the news headlines, each week, on the same day and at the same time, I could catch up with my buddy. Over a year later, and we have barely missed a week.

Together we have been on an amazing journey from the comfort of our own homes. Reflecting on this time and how far we’ve come, I don’t think I have ever told George how much our sessions mean to me. I’m going to make sure it is the first thing I tell him the next time we speak.

Find a virtual buddy

The Sense Virtual Buddying service is free for anyone with disabilities looking for a friend in the UK.