When the pandemic began in England, a handful of our team sat down to consider how we could help people as we moved towards lockdown. We all agreed that connections matter. For some, the thought of being 'locked away'; isolated from their workplaces, families and friends, was unbearable. So we looked for a way to reach out and let people know that we were still there and that they were not alone. 

Many of the team at Advocacy Focus are keen readers. It was not uncommon to see books being shared and discussed at our charity.  One person described reading a book as a chance to unwind and relax which is so important right now. This insight gave us the idea of gifting books to show our communities that we were thinking about them. We wanted to give people a chance to escape, unwind and relax. We wanted to help them to briefly forget about the outside world and this 'new normal'. We were particularly keen to spread the magic of reading to anyone who might otherwise not have books in their lives.

So our team set to work! We approached Webuybooks and Richard Thornton Books and told them about our idea, and were delighted when they donated 1,000 books! That was the start of our Pen-demic Pals project.

From April 2020, everyone who contacted our telephone befriending service and Community Focus project; and each looked after child and child going through the child protection process received a book. The book was delivered with a personally written postcard, to let them know that they were not alone. These were a physical reminder that there was someone out there, thinking of them, reaching out, connecting with them. We also wanted to give people 'time out' from the news stories that overwhelmed them, and a chance to escape, if only for a short time.

To date, our team has handpicked the books according to each person's interests. The most requested book themes have been romance, thriller, adventure, mystery, war history, cooking and arts and crafts.

Sarah told us, "I've received a book through the post called Freedoms Child by Jax Miller with a card from Advocacy Focus. I must say I'm very touched. The title looks like you picked it with me in mind...yet I don't think you know about some parts of my life. I wouldn't have looked for a book like this, but I think you've done me a favour. It looks like it could be empowering. How thoughtful and kind of you".

Ian requested a war story. He said that he was "over the moon" when he received his book through the post.

So far, we have posted out books to 111 children and young people in care in Rochdale, Trafford and Bradford. We have sent 101 books to people who have contacted our befriending services and non-statutory services. And we have also gifted 342 books to the mental health wards in hospitals across Lancashire.

Why give a book?

The Populus Omnibus telephone survey carried out on 15-16th April revealed that 31% of those who took part were turning to books to help them through the lockdown.

What are the benefits of reading on our mental wellbeing?

When we read, we can experience deep relaxation and inner calm. Evidence suggests that regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than infrequent readers. Think of all of those benefits, wrapped up in a book! 

If you or, anyone you know, would like to receive a book; or if you know anyone who is socially isolated and would love to hear from a telephone befriender, or receive a letter from a Pen-demic Pal, then please contact [email protected] or speak to one of our team or live chat on our website. Or call us on 0300 323 0965 for more information.

BBC Radio Lancashire invited Justine to talk about this project on its Making a Difference programme (19.5.20). Hear the interview here.