A Newry teenager, who shielded for 15 months to protect her sister during the Covid pandemic is launching a virtual Girlguiding unit for Brownies and Guides who are unable to attend regular meetings, such as for health reasons.
Kiera McQuaid (18), is determined to bring guiding into the homes of girls who are unable to access it otherwise. She was inspired to act after seeing just how much the boom in online activities benefitted her disabled sister during lockdown.
Her younger sister, Hannah (14), has a rare chromosomal condition, which means that she has learning difficulties and complex medical needs.
Keira said: “Due to COVID-19, my family shielded together for 15 months to protect my younger sister, who is clinically extremely vulnerable.
“During this period, virtual activities and Zoom calls became really important to our family. Like many people, the COVID-19 outbreak forced us all to re-think how we worked and socialised.”
Prior to the pandemic, Hannah had been travelling 90 miles to and from school every day, which limited her ability to participate in after-school activities.
“Fatigue and distance meant there were a limited number of suitable activities that Hannah could take part in locally,” said Kiera – who was formerly a young leader at Newry Rainbows before the pandemic emerged.
“However, when everything went online during the pandemic, it meant that Hannah could suddenly join three different groups – she was doing drama one night, arts and crafts another, and also a music group, which was brilliant for her.”
When the Rainbow unit Kiera had been volunteering with did not go online during lockdown, she instead volunteered to help 1st Rathfriland Brownies, who were conducting meetings over Zoom.
“While there was no question that it was necessary to shield to protect my sister, it was very isolating for us,” she said. “So I really looked forward to Friday nights when I volunteered with Brownies.
“I saw that it was possible to do so much online and the girls all seemed to enjoy themselves. We did all sorts; everything from a virtual sleepover to craft workshops, and baking to completing their Space badge.”
While the vast majority of Girlguiding units across the organisation returned to face-to-face meetings when restrictions lifted, Kiera remained acutely aware that some girls would miss out.
“There are always going to be children who can’t access regular meetings but can join in from their living rooms via the Internet,” said Kiera.
“Perhaps they are in and out of hospital or struggle with fatigue, or perhaps they are young carers or in foster care.”
Kiera, who is currently studying for her A-levels, ran a pilot virtual guiding scheme earlier this year and received great feedback from parents whose children attended.
One parent said: “Virtual Guiding has been a great experience for our daughter. Given her complex medical needs attending an in-person group wouldn’t have been a practical option, so having the opportunity to join virtually was fantastic.
“She loved being a member of the group, making new friends, taking part in all the activities and learning new skills. The thought and planning that goes into each session is a credit to the leaders, and we deeply appreciate their time and commitment.”
Now recruiting for new members for a permanent virtual unit, Kiera’s Brownies and Guides unit is open to seven to 14-year-old girls across the UK.
“There will be so much to do and lots of fun to be had,” she said. “Girlguiding is for everyone and I’m keen to help as many girls to get involved as possible wherever they are and whatever their circumstances.”
The Chief Executive Officer for Girlguiding Ulster, Claire Flowers said: “It’s amazing to see Kiera’s dedication to Girlguiding.
“While it is wonderful to meet in person, many of our units proved during the Covid pandemic that if girls can’t get to us, we can get to them via the Internet.
It’s fantastic that Kiera is still thinking of girls that can’t make it to regular meetings, despite restrictions being lifted.
“We want Girlguiding to be a place where everyone is welcome and free to be themselves. A big part of that is making sure we include everyone, so that every girl has a chance to do amazing things, whoever they are and wherever they’re from. ”