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CAIS demonstrates value of digital inclusion to veterans

From Linzi Jones, Fundraising Manager, CAIS / Change Step

My dad has just learned to attach an emoji to his WhatsApp messages – we consider this a massive digital achievement! Go Dad ?

Whilst dad worries that he is an annoyance each time he calls on the home phone to ask why his mobile won’t connect to the wifi (enter the password) or asks that we restore his laptop to factory settings so that it will stop sending him notifications to update ‘flamin firewalls’. The truth is I am glad that he sticks with it and keeps trying, despite the fact that the words ‘digital’ or ‘social media’ or heaven forbid ‘online banking’ brings him out in a cold sweat!

It was my dad’s concerns that I had in mind when I met Kevin from Digital Communities Wales at a recent WCVA conference. We were in a group workshop discussing digital inclusion in the third sector. Much of the discussions revolved around worries of feeling vulnerable online. After much debate in the group, I eventually piped up with an anecdote about dad and Facebook. From the stunned looks on the group’s faces, I soon realised that “so I just made him a ‘fake’ profile” was a bit controversial; Kevin however pinged me a meeting request email before the session had even finished.

Both Kevin and I have much experience in the online world, Kevin through his Digital Communities Wales work and I through my years in PR, Marketing, blogging and most recently, the third sector.

I am Fundraising Manager for a veteran’s charity called Change Step. It is an all Wales peer mentoring project which is delivered by veterans, for veterans and their families. The veteran community are very often difficult to engage with, for a variety of reasons, particularly when they are struggling with transitioning into civilian life; be that 1 year or 10 years down the line. Change Step Veterans Services is for military veterans and their families who are disadvantaged by psychosocial problems that include mental health, PTSD, substance misuse, involvement with the criminal justice system, homelessness, unemployment, debt, gambling addiction or indeed a combination of these issues.

A veteran will rarely self-identify on civvy street, unless in the company of fellow veterans; regiment and rank regardless. Introduce one veteran to another and boom, you may as well not be in the room for the next 2 hours as the reminiscing, squaddie humour and all round ‘banter’ flows. This is where our digital strategy kicks in. Social media is perfect for ‘banter’!

By the nature of the project, comradeship and peer support is exactly what all serving servicemen and women, and especially veterans rely on. They watched out for each other, brothers in arms whilst their families look after each other in close knit groups. The military community have lived lives which us civvies can never truly comprehend and therefore, the majority of the forces community close ranks.

The loss of this support network out on civvy street, however, can be incredibly isolating, which is why so many veterans create Facebook groups in order to keep in touch, reunite, form new friendships, set up reunion events, share stories, share condolences and crucially, share support.

The creation of Change Step’s social media pages, which includes Facebook and Twitter, along with our official webpage, has been transformational for our charity! We have ready-made networks of veterans to communicate with, we need only the introductions from our peer mentors themselves. From there, we were able to get our messages out in a non-threatening, non-stigmatised way using (clean) language which was authentic to our audience.

Our audience is not only veterans in our communities however, but other third sector organisations, councils, health boards, local community groups, police, churches and media groups. Sharing our messages online enables us to reach them at any time just by including their Twitter handle or conducting a sneaky stalk on Facebook. We even, and this I am most proud of, received a quote of support from Bear Grylls; my son’s hero.

This is all great for our social savvy veterans and their families but what about those who have never used a computer? The ones who have spent their entire adult life in the armed forces where the internet was never needed, and in many cases did not even exist prior to their time in service. Even those veterans who may have served a short time in the military, but technology and the speed at its development has left them overwhelmed, trying to keep up, how do we reach them?

This is where Digital Communities Wales joins us. Change Step’s mentors, development workers and volunteers will be accessing DCW’s Train the Trainer digital courses. Our staff will learn skills which will serve to alleviate their own technophobe fears and then become accredited trainers themselves. Using their new skills, our staff will then have the knowledge to assist our veterans in accessing basic online applications that will help them in their day to day lives. Online banking, job applications, benefits returns, self-help groups, education, peer forums, nutrition and medical advice, social groups and of course, the joy that is Netflix.

Furthermore, our peer mentors can create simple applications and shortcuts to our services in times when a veteran might be in crisis. Copying our contact webpage link onto the homepage of a smartphone, in order that with one touch, a veteran can access our help and if the GPS is on, locate services closest to them for urgent help. One simple, yet so effective way that we can help our service users. It’s not rocket science, just a bit of digital knowledge.

Linzi helped to run a workshop at last week’s Community Regeneration through Digital Inclusion conference, which looked into supporting people with more complex life issues.