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A Zoom Link with a Big Heart – Reclink Connect Nurtures Social Inclusion in Lockdown

In a small loungeroom in south-eastern Melbourne, three family members move in time to an upbeat Hindi electronic tune, as they energetically copy a dance instructor. Fourteen other screens in the same Zoom give a glimpse into lives in lockdown, as individuals bop along, including an elderly man smiling as he dances in his sun-drenched courtyard somewhere in Sydney, carefully following the instructor’s demonstrations.

There is a flurry of messages in the online chat box as participants from across Australia share their thoughts on the current song, their day, and life in general, while the instructor whips up enthusiasm. This session is followed by a gentle exercise class, which leads into a creative writing workshop, followed by a soccer chat, a hip hop lesson… the list goes on - a smorgasbord of activities offered each day. Welcome to Reclink Connect, a free interactive online program provided by Reclink, focusing on connection and inclusion that is in response to the global pandemic.

Reclink Connect offers a warm and welcoming space to all who ‘e-walk’ through the Zoom ‘doors’, into the sanctuary that is a division of Reclink Australia, a charity focusing on connecting people through sport, recreation and art programs to promote social inclusion. The Reclink Connect program came about at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as staff looked for innovative ways to connect with participants, including marginalised and disadvantaged members of the community. With COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing safety measures introduced 18 months ago, Reclink took their program online on Zoom, and with astounding results.

Last week alone, as COVID-19 lockdowns continued across eastern Australia, more than 1000 participants enjoyed engaging with Reclink Connect’s fun suite of programs, including learning a new Bollywood dance, practising a tai chi sequence, building strength in a fitness session, stretching in a yoga class, writing music in a creative song writing class or finding their Zen in a meditation session.

As different states come in and out of lockdown, the online program has grown and developed, and now provides seamless ways to deliver exciting and engaging content to interest and connect with a wide audience.

Reclink Australia CEO David Wells says the initiative ensures that Reclink is still able to socially engage with their participants – some of the most vulnerable Australians – in an attempt to keep the community as connected as possible. “Reclink’s historical conversation has become the national conversation; which is ‘how do you counter exclusion and social isolation?’ a question our founder Peter Cullen posed 30 years ago. Our mission is to include the un-included. Now, in a sense, the ‘un-included’ describes so many more Australians,” says Reclink CEO Dave Wells. “Our online programs are available for everyone, locked down or not.”

Victorian State Manager Jason Carter reflects that Reclink Connect is a unique program that can cross borders and break new ground. “We have developed links with communities cut off, not only due to COVID-19, but due to geographical location and access to opportunities, evidenced by our work in Far East Gippsland through our bushfire recovery program,” Mr Carter said.

In Mallacoota, when restrictions allow, Reclink staff gather in a local hall to join Reclink Connect sessions using a big screen, to provide locals opportunities to try new skills that cannot otherwise be offered in small towns. Also, with the support of Windermere, Phillips Foundation, local governments and police forces throughout Victoria, Reclink have been able to design and distribute activity cards and sports equipment packs for those who might not have access to the internet or devices to attend our online sessions, meaning people can still stay active at home or in residential facilities.

Even in lockdown, each day Reclink Connect is reaching out to new people, helping them to upskill, Mr Carter says. “The program not only supports people’s physical and mental health, it has also developed people’s digital literacy across broad and diverse cohorts in the communities we support,” he said. Each day in the Reclink Connect Zoom room, participants click a Zoom link to join their favourite session with a variety of programs on offer. Some stay all day, enjoying every session with their cameras on for a virtual connection, being active participants. Others have less interest in showing themselves or their lives to the world, but still they are connected.

Reclink Sports Coordinator Brendan Murphy has hosted some 300 online programs, and over the past 18 months of the COVID-19 journey he has welcomed thousands of participants into Reclink’s online interactive space. Brendan says that with the pandemic reducing people’s access to normal support structures, Reclink Connect offers a range of activities to engage with and support people through difficult times. “We are providing fun, active, well-being sessions in a safe manner where participants can stay home and join in,” Brendan said. “Also it connects people from far apart - we have groups and participants from places including Brisbane, Broken Hill, Wollongong, Illawarra, Lake Macquarie, Newcastle, Devonport, Georgetown and Missiondale, Shepparton and Mooroopna.”

The diverse and extensive program is a testament to the Reclink team’s ability to roll with the changes, with facilitators and Reclink staff stepping up to offer workshops and sessions ranging from soccer skills, jump rope sessions, book discussions and friendly and casual NRL, soccer or AFL chats.

People stop by to listen to a chat with Reclink staff and David Hemp, coach of the Pakistani women’s cricket team, discussing the current state of women’s cricket. Others try yoga for the first time, guided by experienced and gentle teachers whose main aim is to encourage and support all participants.

The COVID-19 lockdown has certainly affected some more than others, with a common theme that people are missing social activities and connections. Across Australia reports of deteriorating mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic has been widely documented. The fitness sessions are always popular and the significance of even one participant joining in cannot be overestimated. “Keep it going team.” “Mate this is a tough session.” “Loved the circuit, got a sweat up.”

The comments in the chat box fire thick and fast as dozens of participants enjoy a 30-minute Fitness with Sana session, and the camaraderie in the Zoom room is easy to feel. Brendan says the Reclink Connect program allows facilitators to be creative and is a way for everyone to express themselves. “The online program is an expression of Reclink trying to help our community in its time of need,” Brendan said. “As well, it means Reclink continues to keep its facilitators employed. Adapting to support people through the COVID-19 pandemic is what we do at Reclink.”

“We are grateful for the support of the Victorian Government Departments of Treasury and Finance, Families Fairness and Housing, Jobs Precincts and Regions, along with the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, Vic Health and Federal Government Department of Health to allow us to deliver our programs online and to back us through supporting this program,” Mr Wells said.

Feedback from some participants shows that having the daily timetable of the Reclink Connect program gives people’s lives in lockdown a sense of structure that was lost when normal activities stopped. Small steps towards new friendships are popping up. “Hi everyone,” a participant says through the chat at the start of a dance class. “Nice to see you again,” one participant types quickly. “Nice to see you too,” a reply comes back. More cameras are turned on in this session. Over weeks the shyness and impersonal nature of the Zoom room have slowly peeled away to reveal an energetic group of individuals dancing in their loungerooms and feeding off the energy of the dance instructor, whose smiling face often fills the camera to offer encouragement and laughs throughout the session.

Reclink uses sport, recreation and art to support community inclusion, engagement and recovery and connects with more than 500 member agencies to deliver targeted programs to those who can benefit from connection and social inclusion. With the COVID-19 pandemic set to drag on, Reclink Connect will be there – a little hyperlink with a big heart. And even when restrictions ease, Reclink Connect will be a big part of the unfolding Reclink Australia story.

To access the Reclink Connect online program, email Brendan.murphy@reclink.org for the Zoom link. Find the daily timetable on the Reclink Australia Facebook page.

Article: Callista Cooper.

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