James and Imogen were excited to meet each other for the first time after being paired together through dating service Luv2meetU. Then the pandemic struck.\r\n\r\nLuv2meetU is a friendship and dating service for people with learning disabilities provided by charity Hft.\r\n\r\nBefore lockdown, James, 31, loved getting involved in the community and spent time volunteering as a gardener. Imogen, 29, leads an active social life and, prior to Covid-19, worked in a supermarket and was learning to sing.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nDetermined not to let the pandemic get in the way of love, the team at Hft supported James and Imogen with a video conference chaperoned date.\r\n\r\nThe date went well. James was interested in Imogen\u2019s work and Imogen was fascinated by James\u2019s travels abroad. He was born in Zimbabwe and returns every two to three years. They both said they enjoyed the date, and are now texting and phoning each other to arrange another chaperoned date in a coffee bar. They have plenty of time to learn more about each other and see if love or friendship blossoms.\r\n\r\nStaying sociable\u00a0in lockdown\r\n\r\nFor many people with a learning disability, gaining more independence and being sociable are skills that take years to develop. The pandemic threatens this progress.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\u201cWe very much take for granted that our independence and social skills are ingrained," says Karen England, Project Development Manager for Luc2meetU. "But for some people with a learning disability, these are the result of years of hard work.\u201d \r\n\r\nThe Luv2meetU team normally run social events including walks, pub visits, bowling and club nights for people with learning disabilities \u2013 and crucially, provide a safe space for people to build meaningful friendships and relationships.\r\n\r\nNow that these events are cancelled, Hft's amazing staff have found creative ways to keep the people they support safe, healthy and happy. Hft are now running online social gatherings online \u2013 reducing the loneliness and isolation caused by lockdown, and helping people with learning disabilities to expand their social networks.\r\n\r\nRising to the challenge\r\n\r\nChaperoned meet-ups are just part of the new virtual programme on offer from Luv2meetU, as many of the regular members now meet in group conferencing calls. While the group can\u2019t play sports together or visit restaurants, they still want to see each other and catch up.\r\n\r\nFor James, meeting new people online means that he always has friends he can rely on \u2013 and he can be there for them throughout the pandemic and beyond.\r\n\r\n\u201cI\u2019ve enjoyed the online events." says James. "I've really enjoyed the opportunity it has given me to make new friends. We have swapped numbers and are texting, phoning and skyping.\u00a0 It\u2019s given me the chance to help others by offering conversation. It\u2019s been a real eye opener, hearing about the lives of others, particularly one of my new friends who is shielding to protect his health.\u201d\r\n\r\nKaren England says, "The fact that our members are missing one another and rising to the challenge of using video calls as a social mechanism is wonderful. They\u2019re keen to maintain existing relationships or find new friends \u2013 and they\u2019re looking out for one another.\r\n\r\n"The statistics surrounding people with learning disabilities show that around 50% feel isolated \u2013 that was before Covid-19. We must continue to find new ways to adapt and support people digitally so they can expand their social networks.\u201d\r\nAdapt to thrive\r\nKatie Tennyson, Gifts in Wills Manager for Hft, explains that while the future is unclear, innovation will be at the forefront of surviving the impact of Covid-19:\r\n\r\n\u201cIt\u2019s likely that funding for social care will continue to be squeezed as the nation counts the cost of the pandemic and we want to ensure that essential services like Luv2meetU don\u2019t suffer. This is relevant today, but even more so in the future\u2013 whatever that looks like.\u201d\r\n\r\nFind out more\u00a0\r\n\r\nHft have launched an emergency appeal to support people with a learning disability in need during the pandemic: hft.org.uk\/get-involved\/fundraising-ideas\/pandemicappeal\r\n\r\nIf you\u2019d like to find out more how you can support Hft through this difficult time, you can speak with the Supporter Care Team on 0117 9061 699 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.