By Robbie Westacott 


Adjusting to Life in Lockdown

When the terrible coronavirus pandemic reached the UK earlier this year, there was a great deal of uncertainty and, perhaps understandably, a degree of panic about how it might disrupt our usual way of life. 

Back in March, when a nationwide lockdown was looming, people rushed to the shops to stock up on food, and everything else from booze to toilet paper, in fear that supplies might run out and shops might close indefinitely. 

When that initial rush slowed down a bit, and it became clear the situation wouldn’t be quite as bad as first feared, people started to realise that life would be different in lockdown but most of us would still be able to enjoy the home comforts and conveniences we’re used to. Except, sadly, that wouldn’t be true for everyone. 

As cases of COVID-19 increased at an alarming rate, and hospitals across the country were put under extreme strain, NHS doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, hospital admin staff, and many other key-workers were forced to put their own health at risk to treat the floods of people who were unwell. Not only that, but they were being forced to work much longer hours under far more stress, all with the added concern that they might be taking the virus home and spreading it to their loved ones. 

There was also a great deal of difficulty for older and more vulnerable people, who were told to stay home and self-isolate but given no support for getting food and other essential supplies for themselves. Those with no family to come by and check they were ok, as well as those who weren’t as closely connected to the modern world, were left somewhat stranded. 

Thankfully, it didn’t take long for people in a more capable position to recognise this. Within the first few days of lockdown, the Old Wimbledonians family began rallying together to “do their bit” and support people struggling through this truly unprecedented challenge. 

Men (and Women) for Others 

As a grass-roots rugby club our members, our players past and present, and our faithful network of supporters all have an inherent appreciation for team work, selflessness, and perseverance. 

The Old Wimbledonians Association also has its close ties to Wimbledon College, a Jesuit school with a rich history of helping those in need and a long-standing motto that simply asks its pupils to act as “men for others." 

So, with no sport to be played for the foreseeable future, coming to the aid of people in the local area during the coronavirus pandemic emerged as a natural driving force for our club. Since then, this initiative has taken on a life of its own. 

Putting a Closed Club House to Good Use 

In the first week of April, resident OWA chef Richard Brown decided that, rather than sit at home during lockdown, he’d open his kitchen (safely, of course) at our club house in Raynes Park and begin putting his skills to good use.

Working alongside local charity, the Dons Local Action Group (DLA), Richard got to work preparing ready-meals and packages of food which could be distributed by the DLA throughout Merton. 

With the DLA also setting up a large number of collection points for food donations all across south-west London, there was no shortage of ingredients or supplies. They instantly saw the need to extend the service and support NHS staff working long, gruelling shifts to battle the coronavirus, so they began adding local hospitals to their distribution list as well. 

“When the virus hit, we had a freezer full of food and I wondered if we could turn it into meals for local vulnerable people,” Richard said. “Now we’re providing meals to local hospitals too.”

“A hospital in Epsom is now an acute COVID-19 care centre,” he added. “Medical staff are staying at a Holiday Inn, but of course there’s no staff in the kitchen and you can’t eat cardboard pizzas from Dominos forever.”

Project "Doing a Bit"

So, Project “Doing a Bit” was born, and it didn’t take long for it to catch the attention of local businesses. It turns out there were plenty of people who also felt their free time would be better spent helping others than sitting around at home. 

Wimbledon institutions such as The Alexandra Pub and the Rose and Crown Hotel were soon getting involved, using their closed facilities and large kitchens to help prepare more meals for NHS staff working tirelessly through the pandemic. 

OWRFC Warriors parents Stefano and Naoko Vallebona, proprietors of a fantastic Italian food company of the same name, began donating and helping where they could as well. 

The staff at the nearby Fulham Football Club training ground in Motspur Park were kind enough to donate a large quantity of food to the cause which would otherwise have gone to waste. 

Driven by the DLA, Project Doing a Bit started to grow bigger than anyone could’ve imagined. Before long, we also had invaluable support from organisations like Critical NHS, Mustard Foods, Food Relief UK, Solstice Food, Abel and Cole, Lady Wimbledon, Penni Black Catering, Bliss Coffee, the Morden Islamic Community Centre, the Hampton Wick Tandoori, the Princess of India Restaurant, Brake Bros. UK, the Leather Bottle Pub, Philippa’s Kitchen, and many, many more recognisable names from the area. 

It goes without saying, but please continue to support local businesses like these in any way you can during the lockdown period, and be sure to return their generosity when their doors finally open again over the coming weeks and months. 

The Numbers 

It’s been so inspiring to see such a strong and unflinching community spirit during this challenging time. The efforts of everyone involved with this project cannot be understated, and the positive impact they’ve all had will live long in the memory. 

And as of yesterday (Sunday, May 25), those collective efforts have resulted in around 22,862 meals delivered over the course of seven weeks, with 20,312 of those going to the NHS. 

That’s included delivering warm food, fresh fruit, home-made cakes and muffins, and other essential supplies to hospitals such as St George’s Tooting, Epsom, St. Helier, Kingston, Queen Mary's Roehampton, Royal Surrey County, and East Surrey. 

It’s worth mentioning that plenty of our club’s members, friends, and family work at some of those hospitals, and we couldn’t be more proud of the bravery and dedication they’ve shown since the coronavirus outbreak reached the UK.  

Light at the End of the Tunnel 

Now, after 49 days of hard work, chef Richard and his team have prepared their last meal for the NHS for the time being. That was delivered yesterday to the amazing staff at the neo-natal unit at St George’s Hospital; an NHS Trust with plenty of strong ties to our club. 

Thankfully, this conclusion comes after the message was received that the pressure of the pandemic has started to ease, and it would seem that the situation might finally be improving for our hospitals. 

Hopefully things stay that way. But there’s no doubt that, if called upon again, everyone involved in Project Doing a Bit would be ready and willing to leap back into action and continue to support the NHS if needed. 

Well-Deserved Recognition 

Safe to say it’s been a strange and difficult couple of months, but one positive thing to take from this experience is that we’re so fortunate to be part of such a special club. 

Some highlights of the project have included:

Feedback from the Front-Line

One thing which has made all this hard work worthwhile is the positive feedback from the NHS heroes who have been receiving these meals from the project. 

Richard Hutton, First XV player for the OWRFC and A&E doctor at St. George’s said, “On behalf all staff at St. George’s, I have to say a huge thank you to the OWs and the Dons Local Action Group, whose generosity has not gone unnoticed. It's amazing that the OWs has regularly provided us with fresh produce, baked goods, and warm cooked meals for all staff and key-workers, and we’re all extremely grateful.” 

A friend of the OWs from First Touch NNU, the neo-natal unit at St. George’s, commented on Instagram, “I love that the fab people at the rugby club at the end of the road where I live are helping the wonderful staff in the place I work.” 

The wonderful team at First Touch NNU also sent in a lovely video message via Twitter, which you can watch here

We also recently received a very kind tweet from Kingston Hospital Theatres, saying, “Hard to find the words, really, to express the gratitude we have to all the teams that have helped in paying for, cooking, organising, and distributing all the delicious food for us. It has meant so much to us all. We will never forget your kindness. Thank you.”

What’s Next? 

Of course, the many complex challenges of the coronavirus are far from over. We strongly urge everyone to remain in lockdown and continue to be as careful as possible until it’s safe to do otherwise.  

In the mean-time, Richard and his team will keep preparing meals for vulnerable and isolated members of the community, as well as local organisations such as the Kaleidoscope Project in Kingston.  

The Old Wimbledonians and all our members will also continue to support the DLA in their daily efforts to collect donations. They're asking for everything from food, to second-hand clothing, and even unwanted electronic devices to help children learn from home.

Thank You to Everyone Involved 

We’d like to take this opportunity to thank all our volunteers – delivery drivers, chef Richard, temporary sous-chef (and OWRFC Head Coach) Matt Bell, over 1,000 families who have been baking, the team responsible for packaging and labelling the ready-meals, and everyone else – you've all been absolutely outstanding. Special thanks also to Greg Martis, who launched the NHS branch of the project following the request from a neighbour who is a doctor. 

Thank you to everyone who has spread the word for us on social media. Platforms like these have brought everyone closer together and have allowed us to ensure vulnerable people are receiving the support they deserve, so please keep helping us in that way. 

Thanks so much as well to everyone who has donated to our JustGiving fund-raiser to allow this project to happen. A staggering £8,264 has already been donated as of today (Monday, May 26), but we’re still aiming for a total of £10,000 to fuel the project over the next few weeks so please continue to contribute if possible

And, most importantly, to all the NHS staff, doctors, nurses, carers, key-workers, and everyone else risking their own health for the sake of others during this time, you’re truly an inspiration and an example to us all. Thank you.