As the Covid-19 crisis tightened its grip on the UK and around the world, the Merchiston grounds retained their unshakeable tranquillity and you could have been forgiven, in this oasis of calm, for momentarily forgetting the difficulties endured by many: the suffering of Coronavirus victims and their families, the loneliness of those forced to stay at home, the anxiety of carers and the long shifts being worked by countless key workers to keep the country going. However, it is in such situations that a community like Merchiston really comes together, not to pull up the drawbridge and insulate ourselves from the crisis, but to open the gates and head out into the local community to do what little we may to help those most in need. In a year where being “negative” was seen as a singularly positive thing, the Merchiston charity effort was certainly an unexpected and most welcome positive.
A fleet of unused minibuses seemed a good place to start and it seemed likely that deliveries of various sorts might be required in the local area. Groups of Lower Sixth boys normally spend their Wednesday afternoons helping to mentor pupils at two local primaries (amongst others): Longstone and Braidburn, as part of our Koinonia (Community Service) Programme. Both of these institutions had been working incredibly hard to get food parcels out to their most vulnerable pupils and we were happily able to assist them.
In some cases, Edinburgh City Council delivered to the schools ready for distribution; in other cases, we collected them directly from the council in our minibus with our trailer brightly decorated by some of the children resident on campus in homage to all the key workers. The boxes included all the staples to last for a few days: tinned food, cheese, bread, milk, eggs, fruit. We then assisted in delivering these across the city to children from Queensferry to Craigmillar and from Leith to Wester Hailes.
It is only when you start doing this sort of work that you truly appreciate the scale of the task. Even keeping just a few families properly supplied is a major logistical operation and we take our hats off to these schools who did a truly remarkable job of looking after their pupils. It is also in doing such work that you meet others engaged in the same endeavour and the army of volunteers which mobilised in response to the crisis was both inspiring and heart-warming.
Through these meetings, further opportunities arose to help out with both St. Crispin’s School and Edinburgh City Mission Food Banks, delivering further parcels for the former and collecting donations for the latter from Morrisons and dropping them off at the distribution depot. We also began a regular programme of delivering meals for Cyrenians- a truly inspirational charity who, among many other things, produce delicious food for Edinburgh’s homeless and socially-excluded in their ‘Flavour and Haver Kitchen’ in Leith.
Braidburn also had the great idea of developing activity packs to keep their pupils active and stimulated through that difficult time and we delivered these around the whole catchment area, taking our total distance for our lockdown deliveries to well over 1,000 miles.
The Merchiston pupils have really taken these charitable ideals to heart over the months of this crisis and at a time when it would have been all too easy for them to become introspective- to focus on what they could not and cannot do- they have instead looked outwards.
Among the many individual achievements, one of our pupils, Toby, raised over £17,000 for Cancer Research UK by undertaking a gruelling fitness challenge. Another three boys, Lachlan, Matthew & Dougie, then raised over £6,400 for the British Heart Foundation with a remarkable cycle/run from the Scottish Borders to (and around!) Loch Lomond and back. In both of these cases the charities were particularly close to the hearts of the boys involved and their commitment, dedication and selflessness was truly a shining example to us all.
Further fundraising efforts in House through the lockdown period also saw us make donations to Macmillan, Cyrenians, The Alzheimer Society and The Scottish Charity Air Ambulance, but we were also aware that we could not constantly ask for people to make financial donations. The boys then once again came up trumps: letters were written to the residents of a local care home and, more recently, to former Merchiston pupils worldwide who are currently experiencing loneliness; individual musical performances were recorded and sent to care home residents along with personal messages; mentors made contact with their charges from Braidburn school; and many Duke of Edinburgh participants switched their Volunteering activity to something which could contribute to the local and national effort: dog-walking for elderly neighbours, volunteering in community centres, and making scrubs for NHS staff to name but a few. Indeed, in total, our DofE participants completed 2,106 hours of volunteering over the course of last year (with a social value reckoned to be £9,161.10) and much of that was through the lockdown.
Towards the end of the last school year, it was decided that a whole-School effort would be a fitting culmination of a remarkable period. Instigated by our school counsellor, Fiona Blair, who has worked very closely over a long period of time with the charity, we undertook a virtual walk from Edinburgh to Bulawayo in aid of the Our Neighbours Community Project. Participants (pupils, parents, grannies, friends, friends of friends) submitted their daily mileage and we plotted a (rather circuitous) course all the way from Scotland to Zimbabwe, with regular updates and factual information from our Geography and Biology departments on what we were ‘seeing’ along the way. A total of over £11,500 was raised.
Since we returned to face-to-face schooling, and prior to the latest lockdown, we returned to one of the charities whom we supported previously: Cyrenians. In conjunction with Ali Kerr from that organisation, we have brought together a group of seven pupils who are now actively engaged in promoting the work of the charity, raising funds and volunteering. A short campaign amongst the Merchiston community just prior to the Christmas holidays prompted a staggering £20,000 of donations- thanks in large part to the incredible generosity of some parents- and the boys have also undertaken a whole host of competitions, activities and events.
This went hand-in-hand with our final charitable project of the term: our reverse advent calendar. Symptomatic of all the other projects, the idea was that, rather than taking out, the pupils should put something in each day in December in the lead-up to the end of term. The 4 crates of non-perishable food donations which we collected were then delivered to Edinburgh City Mission for distribution to their food banks.
It has been a hugely challenging time for many people, but, if necessity is the mother of invention, so adversity is the mother of compassion. The generosity of the pupils over the last year has been truly wonderful and, amongst the many other lasting effects of this pandemic, we can but hope that such care, philanthropy and kindness may be one of its more enduring legacies.