Virtual workshops help isolated children in hospital beat loneliness by ‘Spreading a Smile’


This Loneliness Awareness Week (14th-18th June), The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK, is shining a light on the incredible community projects and charities using National Lottery funding to build social connections and tackle loneliness in London.

Loneliness is a big concern. According to The National Lottery Community Fund’s most recent Community Research Index (a survey of more than 7,000 people across the UK) almost half of respondents (47%) say that tackling loneliness and isolation is an important priority for the year ahead. At the same time, recent research reveals that the number of people in the UK feeling “often” or “always” lonely has jumped by more than a million since last year – from 2.6 million to 3.7 million.

Communities are keen to get to grips with the challenge – in the past five years almost £700 million of National Lottery funding has been distributed to charities working to address loneliness and social isolation and build connections and relationships. In London alone, 414 projects have received a share of more than £29 million in National Lottery funding since the start of the pandemic to tackle the issue.

Spread a Smile, which works across 11 NHS hospitals in London, is just one of many community projects in the Capital supporting people feeling isolated during this challenging time. It has been awarded more than £9,000 of National Lottery funding to support the expansion of a digital art workshop programme for seriously ill children and their families. The workshops aim to distract young patients from their treatment, alleviate the boredom that can come with being in hospital or isolating at home, and provide artistic experiences that boost creativity and self-confidence.

One young person to benefit from the project is 15-year-old Lydia Austin from Oxfordshire. Her young life has been very different to that of her peers, and over the last year the digital workshops have been a real “lifeline” for her and her family. At just four years old Lydia was diagnosed with Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 1 – a hereditary condition associated with tumours of the hormone producing glands – and at age 12, was then diagnosed with Metatastic Neuroendocrine Cancer, which progressed unexpectedly young and quickly.

Lydia’s mother, Suzanne, explains: “COVID has meant Lydia has had to isolate for longer periods prior to, during and after her treatment. This has left her feeling shut away and isolated from her friends and family during a time when she needs them most. Many of these days spent at home for Lydia have left her feeling very withdrawn and lonely. It is a difficult enough experience for a teenager going through cancer treatment without all the extra complications COVID has also brought along.”

The solitude Lydia felt because of her treatment was exasperated further during the pandemic when she had to remain in her hospital room with lead lined doors due to the high dose of radiation she was receiving.

“During and after the transfusion Lydia has to be on her own with as little contact as possible to prevent radiation contamination. This was really upsetting for her and consequently myself. Not being able to hug your child when they’re feeling unwell and very vulnerable, it is the hardest thing and goes completely against your natural instincts.”

It was in December 2018 when Lydia was transferred to University College London Hospital (UCLH) for treatment that the family was first introduced to Spread a Smile.

Suzanne continues: “We first met Spread a Smile when they were able to make visits to hospital and the whole feeling on the ward changed those days when their entertainers visited. Those visits totally distract you and your child from the monotony of the hospital day and treatments, they lifted Lydia’s mood and gave us something else to think and talk about. COVID then changed all of this last year but Spread a Smile adapted so they could still bring their entertainment and fun to us digitally whilst in hospital or at home.”

In response to the pandemic, as well as providing digital visits with their entertainers, including fairies, magicians and singers, the charity has also expanded their art provision and now delivers regular art workshops online. These sessions have allowed Spread a Smile to continue reaching hundreds of children and families despite being unable to physically visit the hospitals. The art workshops include both individual and group sessions which can include children from one hospital ward joining virtually to work with Spread a Smile artists on a themed piece of work.

“The secure virtual visits have been a lifeline for our family to enjoy, especially Lydia while in hospital and when recovering at home or isolating. The regular contact with the Spread a Smile entertainers and other children gives her something to focus on and also provides some normality during very difficult times.”

Lucy Jackson, CEO of Spread a Smile, said; “Long-term hospitalisation can be exceptionally hard for children and young people. Spread a Smile is there to offer a much-needed distraction, to help children and young people cope more effectively with illness and treatment, encourage socialisation between peers and family members and create lasting positive memories. In addition, our entertainment helps to distract children and young people from illness and the hospital environment, giving them an opportunity to have fun and just be a child.

“Thanks to funding from organisations like The National Lottery Community Fund, we have been able to continue delivering our entertainment and art activities digitally over the last 14 months to children under the care of our NHS partners. At a time when children have been so incredibly isolated because of Covid-19, they have needed our support more than ever. Our digital delivery has been so well received by the children and families we support, that it will continue alongside our face-to-face hospital visits in future.

“It has been our honour and privilege to entertain Lydia and her family over the last two and a half years.”

The National Lottery Community Fund has also combined forces with the Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the Local Connections Fund – a £4 million funding programme designed to help build connections within communities. Earlier this year, more than 850 community groups benefitted from the first round of Local Connections Fund grants, with the second round opening to applications 28th June.

The funding is particularly aimed at small organisations with an income of less than £50,000 that are working with communities more vulnerable to social isolation. To find out more, visit: