Melksham air cadets stay on parade virtually thanks to grant

Air cadets left isolated and lonely by three successive lockdowns are staying connected thanks to a coronavirus fund grant. 2385 Squadron ATC in Melksham were awarded £2,600 from our Coronavirus Response and Recovery Fund to buy laptops and tablets for volunteers to help with virtual parades online.

Commanding officer Greg McKay, who has led the squadron for five years commented: “The grant has been really helpful because it has allowed us to get more volunteers leading the meetings. It’s really important for the youngsters to have the contact and inclusion. Probably a third of them don’t engage because they are just overloaded with online stuff, a third turn up sporadically and then there’s a third who are there every time because they are desperate to do something and see their friends.”

The group’s 50 members usually meet weekly to enjoy activities including adventure training, sport, music, shooting, flying and gliding. It had to stop meeting last March but OC McKay immediately launched the weekly online meetings.

“They were initially for the Melksham squadron but we found out that many of the other squadrons weren’t meeting so we have expanded it to Chippenham, Corsham, Warminster, Bradford on Avon, Malmesbury, Trowbridge and Westbury,” he said. “We are getting between 50 and 80 cadets at each parade.”

The easing of lockdown in December meant the group did manage to meet once before Christmas. “When we came back the cadets had changed so much - not just the fact that they had grown so much in some cases, but we could see that the impact of nine months of lockdowns on them was very telling,” said OC McKay. “By the time we go back we don’t know how they are going to be.

“For teenagers, when they are going through what they go through anyway, lockdown has been the absolute worst. Every structure which young people are used to, school, home, meeting friends or whatever, has just been blown away so anything they knew is gone and I do worry about them.”

The weekly meetings delivered by the squadron’s leaders and volunteers feature cadet-related lessons, quizzes, games and guest speakers.

OC McKay commented: “We also have a lot of volunteers who give up their time and after almost every online session the staff stay on afterwards and there’s 25 minutes or so of chat and jokes and it’s a chance for them to unwind. The meetings have a real mental health benefit for them too.”

Many of the cadets come from low income families and the group has provided free T-shirts to those who cannot afford to buy them for their youngsters. Said OC McKay: “It is tough economically for many families in the town and the lockdown just compounds everything.

“We’ve done whatever we can to support them but we know that when this ends there will be whole sections of the local economy that probably will have gone and that will have an impact on places like Melksham. That’s why it is important we are here.”

Wiltshire Community Foundation joint chief executive Fiona Oliver said: “The air cadets are providing friendship, fun and something approaching normality for young people who are living with uncertainty in often difficult circumstances. We are really pleased to support the group and its brilliant work.

“The group will be important to help its cadets ease back into normal life when the lockdown ends so it is essential it is still around. That’s why our fund remains just as important to the county’s voluntary groups now as it was when we first launched it last March.”

You can donate to our Coronavirus Response Appeal here.

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