Whilst lockdown has been hard for many people, particularly on mental health, there are always those few who try and make it a happier experience for others. Victoria Smith is one of those people.
Victoria, 26, works for Stay Up Late as a Gig Buddies Assistant. The project matches people with learning disabilities with volunteers who can go to gigs with them, instead of having to leave early when their support worker’s shift ends. She also has a learning disability and ADHD.
As the focus of the charity changed during lockdown from physical events and meet-ups to online engagement, Victoria played a vital role in supporting the Gig Buddies project through the challenges of lockdown, helping to organise a range of fun activities and inspiring others by her ability to remain positive. She even starred in her own hilarious one woman show as part of Stay Up Late’s online Gig Buddies Coronavirus Fest, attracting over 1000 views.
She has also written a number of blogs for Stay Up Late, talking about the challenges of working from home, mental health challenges during lockdown and about the importance of friendship in lockdown during Learning Disability Week.
All of which is incredible when you consider that a few years ago she had never been to a gig, needed help using public transport and was nervous in crowds.
Says Darren Johnson, Campaigns Coordinator at Stay Up Late who nominated her for the Coronavirus Leaders’ List:
“Victoria has such a strong insight into the lack of confidence that having a learning disability can instil in people, not from any learning impairment itself but from the way they may have been treated in the past and how this can badly affect people’s confidence and limit their horizons.
One of Victoria’s real gifts is helping build confidence in others. Through her own journey she knows what a positive impact such a confidence boost can have on a person’s health and wellbeing and their ability to achieve their hopes and dreams and aspirations.”
We caught up with Victoria to find out more…
So Victoria, how do you feel about winning?
When I was at school I was nominated for stuff but never won anything. I wouldn’t have been bothered if I’d won or not, at the end of the day it’s about Gig Buddies and as a charity it’s a big thing for us. It’s not about me, it’s about the people we support.
Tell me about your Gig Buddies role
The project matches people through their common interests. I really love changing people’s lives. When I first meet people who approach Gig Buddies, sometimes they have no confidence and, like me, they may never have been to a gig. A year later they’re so different and so confident.
I help my colleagues with running socials and Zoom coffee mornings, doing volunteer interviews and new participant meetings. Since starting in this job, I have grown so much in confidence I can now get on a mic and talk about our charity. I love going to gigs and love listening to live music and I love volunteer training and helping match up Gig Buddy pairs.
One of my favourite parts of the job is checking in with people one year on and seeing how their confidence has grown and hear all the amazing things they’ve done.
I love supporting them, changing their lives and making them feel better. That’s what I love doing and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
How did you become a Gig Buddies Assistant?
I did Art and Design at college and at the Easter term I was told it was going to be my last year at college. At this time I’d moved into an independent flat and being told that news was hard. I wanted to go to university to do photography, and to be told I couldn’t come to college anymore, it upset me and I quit college.
At the time I was supported by Aldingbourne Trust and they have a scheme called Work Aid where they help people to get paid employment or voluntary work. I have high needs and knew I would get bored at a Day Centre, so I knew I had to go into work.
My first interview was for Stay Up Late. I actually met Paul Richards, the Director of Stay Up Late, before my interview when we were both at the Houses of Parliament for the Learning Disability Today launch in my role as Ambassador for Aldingbourne Trust, and I spoke to him at the event telling him I was being interviewed by him the next day.
When I went for the interview, which was my first job interview, I wasn’t nervous at all. In the interview I was asked what my favourite TV show was, which at the time was ‘The Walking Dead’. I remember thinking, ‘what kind of an interview is this?!” I was convinced I hadn’t got the job, so when I got a missed call and phoned back, I was stunned to be asked when I could start!
“Wait a minute, does this mean I have the job?!” It was amazing to get my first job at my first interview.
I love working at Stay Up Late. The story of Stay Up Late really empowers me. It allows people to stay to the end of a gig, instead of leaving because their support worker’s shift was over. Before this job, I never really used to go out, only on my birthday and never to a gig. Since then I prefer listening to live music and I’ve loved going to gigs.
How did you cope with the differences to your role as a result of lockdown?
It feels like a long holiday from school. I dealt with it well, as a team we got on with it.
As a team we have done amazingly well. As a team we came up with ideas of how to support Gig Buddies. From when everything closed down, we arranged Gig Buddies Coronavirus Fest. I also came up with some other ideas to support Gig Buddies, like coffee mornings. I think as a team we managed it really well. We did phone check-ins with our Gig Buddies.
We arranged social events online and we get good comments about them. With the atmosphere of a social you forget what’s going on in the world. We’ve done a pub quiz, dance socials, open mic sessions. We had events on Facebook Live where we had artists to perform three times a week. We also did a further online show where I did a second One Woman Show as part of the Gig Buddies All in One Day festival. The Gig Buddies could watch the shows live and interact with it, send messages and comments.
During lockdown I just enjoyed talking to the Gig Buddies and doing the coffee mornings. It was good to have a chat with them. Sometimes it can be a bit intense, but most of the time it’s so much fun as there will be a discussion about something different. One time we all ended up talking about Star Wars!
I have attended the socials and we have Ambassadors meetings every fortnight. In my role as an Ambassador for Gig Buddies I help with campaigning and external stuff around the country. Gig Buddies does the fun stuff, and I’m an outspoken campaigner for people’s rights.
I’ve just released a podcast series, I’m a host of a podcast!
I do one every few weeks with Malcolm Hill (Gig Buddies Coordinator for West Sussex). The podcast is the Gig Buddies Lockdown Podcast and on it people share their stories of coping with the Coronavirus lockdown.
On one I talked about work as it was my four year anniversary. I talked about what is so important and how I started this job. We also have Partners meetings with all of the Gig Buddies we have, including those in Sydney. What’s been good with that is that even though we’re far away we all come up with ideas, like Sydney Gig Buddies have been doing walking meet ups with social distancing. If there’s an important thing to bring up we come up with ideas together.
Team meetings have changed recently, we have a new way of doing them which is more fun. We were at a socially distanced team away day when Darren got the email to say I’d won. When I saw the email I shouted out that I’d won and then I read the rest where it said to keep quiet about it until 3rd December, but I’d already shouted it out across the whole pub!
Malcolm even wrote to the Queen to tell her about the work we’ve been doing in lockdown. She mentioned my name in the letter we got back! Of all the people she could have included she put ‘Miss Victoria Smith’!
Can you tell me more about Gig Buddies online festivals?
Gig Buddies ran the Coronavirus Fest throughout the Summer with live music.
Then we had the All In One Day Festival where Gig Buddies around the UK and in Sydney, Australia, all came together and did a one day 12 hour festival.
It was the most amazing thing ever. We had live music all day with live bands and even some yoga. We’re planning more stuff at Christmas.
How did you get involved in doing the one woman show?
One of my team members said I should really do a show at Gig Buddies Coronavirus Fest and I agreed to it.
I was told “You’re so funny, you should do a comedy thing on there.”
I loved doing it. When you hear all the comments saying ‘you’re so funny’, it’s the best thing ever.
You’re also an Ambassador for Gig Buddies, which involves public speaking. How did you get involved in that?
I used to speak about my journey in supported living as an Ambassador for Aldingbourne Trust. I also used to train support workers how to talk to people with learning disabilities.
We’d do exercises like working through a shopping list and I’d role play someone being really awkward. I’d then explain to the support worker afterwards how they should support someone who was acting like this.
I’m not ashamed of having a learning disability [Victoria also has ADHD]. Since the virus it’s been called a hidden disability as well. I’ve always said with a learning disability there’s always a label and always a name behind it. I think it’s wrong. Labels help people understand the condition but that’s it.
How have you stayed positive during lockdown?
I love winding up my team and I even prank my co-workers.
One prank involved me pretending to be hungover, complete with sunglasses, before announcing I was only joking!
You also wrote several blogs for Stay Up Late around mental health and how to cope with lockdown, can you tell me about that?
I have mental health issues and thought it was good to write a blog about supporting people with mental health.
Adds Darren, “Victoria has never worked from home before so the challenge of working from home during lockdown, overcoming all the distractions in her flat and maintaining good mental health in spite of feelings of isolation that lockdown inevitably brings were all things that she had to face up to.
She shared these challenges in a series of blogs she wrote for us and drew on her own experiences to help other Gig Buddies participants who were facing their own challenges. Victoria has also written about her experiences of having ADHD in another blog for ADHD Awareness Month in October.”
So what’s next for you after the pandemic?
Some of the Zoom stuff we’ve been doing will continue as it was a good way to bring people together. It also meant we could talk to people in Australia. I did a talk for Gig Buddies in Australia about Ancient Egypt and they want me back to talk about my job.
I want do a fundraiser to be sent to Sydney for two weeks to see what they do. I’d like to talk about their projects and go to their socials. It would be really nice to go over there and see what they do and help them promote Gig Buddies.
After my stand-up show, open mics have been suggested to me and I’ve been given contacts. I’d like to be a big YouTuber and make my comedy bigger. I was a guest on Ambitions where I spoke about my ambitions. I would want to go to Egypt, I’m obsessed with Egypt. When I was at college I did a lesson to students about Egypt.