Over 60 partners and personnel from RAF Akrotiri have been regularly providing additional support to military sections across the Station during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The team from the community have been providing vital support such as assisting in reception at the Medical Centre, serving food at the central feeder to personnel and managing handwashing facilities outside the Forces Store supermarket. The team also provide food shopping deliveries for those in isolation.
The concept of Akrotiri Volunteer Army (AVA) began in late March with Mrs Susan Smith and some friends.
“A friend of mine, Mrs Julie Helmsley, created a Facebook page called 'Aki Friends COVID Isolation Support Network' and asked me to moderate it, explains Sue. “It started off as a friends group; she added her friends and I added mine. In turn, everyone added theirs and there are now 600 local members on it.
“I then decided it would be nice to do some home baking for those that were isolated as most had just landed on island and possibly didn't know anyone they could ask for help."
The group quickly expanded and soon they were delivering home bakes to over 36 houses where people were in isolation.
As the demand for support rose the Station Warrant Officer became the point of contact for those wanting help and Sue, an ex-Army Corporal in the Adjutant General’s Corp, Royal Military Police, joined forces with three others to become a command team of four. Alongside Sue the team consisted of Mr Andy Gibbs who is an RAF reservist in the logistics branch and took charge of aiding with the central feeder, Mrs Claire Turner who runs the medical volunteers, and Mr Andy Roberts who gathered information on volunteers who had relevant experience as well as constructing a ‘rota-style’ spreadsheet for the volunteers.
“What started off as a few good people with a ‘be kind’ attitude, became a mass movement of community spirit, generosity and camaraderie. This has been developed into the Akrotiri Volunteer Army, a sustainable support aiding military output.”
The list of requests grew and soon AVA was supporting a range of activities; acting as personal shoppers for those who are in self-isolation, maintaining the hand wash system outside the Forces Store, cleaning and even working as typists.
They have also been assisting the Medical Centre where required; working on the door of the Centre to gather information on recent travel movements and gain attendance statistics.
One of the AVA’s most significant contributions is their assistance at the newly formed ‘central feeder’. The feeder was set up in order to continue providing three meals a day to single personnel who are stationed at RAF Akrotiri as well as those who are posted there on operations.
Sergeant Simon Ingledew, who is part of the team that runs the central feeder spoke about how AVA’s volunteers have helped them out:
“The volunteers have been a great help at the feeder providing extra manpower during the busy service times. This has allowed us to carry out the more routine tasks that go with running the feeder.
All the volunteers are polite and cheerful with all the staff members and our customers. Their assistance has been well received by all that have come into contact with them. They’re all a pleasure to work with.”
Mrs Emma Ford, an ex-RAF Flight Operations Squadron Leader, is one of the volunteers: “I have shopped for people in isolation and manned the Med Centre door a couple of times,” she explains, “but mainly I have been helping out at the feeder.
“The people I have worked with have been great, the military staff have taken us all in as part of their team, been wonderfully supportive, helpful and great fun whilst we settled into our new ‘Dinner Lady’ roles, although we do have a couple of ‘Dinner Guys’ too.
“The ladies and gentlemen we have served have ‘seemed’ pleased to see us. I hope we have provided a friendly smile and a break from what must seem like the same old same old every day. If nothing else, we have made sure nobody has gone short on chips and ‘Mum nagged’ a few of the younger ones to eat more veg!”
By helping in this area and aiding the medical staff, military personnel serving at RAF Akrotiri have been able to maintain their capacity enabling them to continue their focus on the operational capabilities of the Station.
Not only has this supported the Station’s operational output but it also means that the Station has been able to provide extra support to additional military assets which, in turn, has allowed the UK Armed Forces to continue providing global logistical support during the Coronavirus pandemic.
“Knowing we are helping lighten the load of the Station personnel has been brilliant and is exactly what we all hoped to do."
Mrs Emma Ford
“If we weren’t working there, somebody else would have to be and working a role in addition to their normal workload; they are working so hard already. I have been in awe of the effort and time they have put into setting up all of the systems to keep us all safe. It seemed right to put back in and support them too.”
For some in the community, AVA has been able to help some unsuspecting members of the family. Mrs Katrina Bryan’s dog fell extremely ill while the family was undergoing a 14-day self-isolation period.
Thanks to the help of a member of the Station’s Dog Section, they were able to stay safely isolated while their dog was taken to the local veterinary surgery for lifesaving treatment.
She said: “It was just such a relief to have this kind volunteer come forward and offer help when we so desperately needed it. I can't explain how emotionally upsetting the day was trying to find someone to take our dog to the vet but we are so grateful to this gentleman who did as it’s likely our dog would have died if nobody had come forward.”
Mrs Bryan’s family were also among many who were unable to leave self-isolation to get essential supplies from the supermarket.
“Being in isolation for the second time in five weeks was particularly hard but having AVA's shopping service made life so much easier. Always knowing someone would be available to bring any basic food and drink needed for our family was such a relief and much better than getting in touch with a friend in the hope that they would be available to do our shopping for us.”
Volunteering was not just a chance to help others but provided an opportunity to give back to the community during a difficult time. Mrs Clara Wallace welcomed the distraction of being able to help as her husband is away for six months.
“My husband is currently deployed in the Falklands, he left in January, and I'm home alone with my 11-year-old. Helping others where I can is a little distraction from my ‘mum duties’.
“It also enables me to engage in some adult communication and gives me purpose and focus during lockdown, filling the gaps where I would normally be at work, keeping myself busy but productive and my mind healthy - it's good to have the ‘get up and go’ spirit and most importantly help others.
“I know the people I have helped have been so grateful, it's amazing how being a little ‘Shopping Fairy’ can bring happiness and meaning to people right now. This lockdown has definitely proven that it is the little things in life that matter.”
As the Sovereign Base Areas and the Republic of Cyprus now look to begin lifting restrictions and transitioning slowly back into normality the work of AVA’s volunteers has been a huge boost to the Akrotiri community and a direct contribution to the efforts to fight and defeat COVID-19.