A COUNTY Durham charity which pairs people who have learning disabilities with a companion has resumed its service after a pause during the pandemic.

One to One received £140,000 from The National Lottery Community Fund to continue providing people, many living in rural areas or in care homes, with the nurturing company of a befriender for the next three years.

It also helps people exercise their independence, opening doors to a range of activities such as visiting museums, going bowling, or watching a football match.

Without befrienders, charity officials say the people it supports would find it difficult to access fulfilling experiences like these.

Shielding, self-isolation, and multiple lockdowns during the pandemic have negatively impacted the mental health of many of those accessing One to One’s support, leaving them feeling anxious and fearful, a spokesperson said.

Many were unable to comprehend why their normal routine and activities had drastically changed after having their befriender suddenly taken away from them.

Recent research highlights people with disabilities have experienced limited or no access to activities and support services during the pandemic – to the detriment of their mental health and increasing rates of anxiety.

Steven, who has autism and dyspraxia, was matched with Janet, a One to One befriender, in 2018.

Since the pandemic, the pair have had little contact with one another. When Steven was asked if he was looking forward to being reunited with Janet again, he replied enthusiastically with “miss Janet, back soon”.

Janet and Steven have become great friends and have enjoyed taking part in Park Run together, going on bike rides, visiting the set of Coronation Street and trips to Newcastle.

Janet took early retirement four years ago as an accountant to become a carer after feeling an inner calling towards the vocation.

Janet said: “I really look forward to my time with Steven. I find it so rewarding to see him want to have a go at things, become more independent, have an opinion, and have discussions. He radiates this warmth and gives me such energy – it’s a fulfilling experience that I can’t wait to get back to.”

Pre-pandemic, One to One had 18 befrienders supporting 42 individuals with learning disabilities. It delivered over 650 hours of befriending sessions and, with the help of its recent funding, aim to get the service back to this level of activity again.

Michael Russell, fundraising manager at One to One, said: “Thanks to National Lottery players, the funding will help learning disabled adults to have normality back in their lives. Covid-19 put this on hold - anxiety and mental health issues have entered the picture and have become a huge problem.

“Befriending goes a long way in relieving these problems as well as the original remit of helping people to have independence in life.”

Duncan Nicholson, head of funding for North East and Cumbria at The National Lottery Community Fund, said: “One to One’s befriending service offers people with learning disabilities the chance to access fulfilling experiences, while also developing social skills and their self-esteem. These are things most of us take for granted. We’re honoured to support its important and positive work in the local community.

“I am incredibly proud to see the amazing impact that money raised by National Lottery players is having in communities across the North East. This funding has given a much-needed boost to community spirit this year after what have been some extremely difficult times.”