Until March 2020, Farah Salim had worked part-time as a passenger assistant at ECT, helping children taking their morning and afternoon minibuses to and from school.
Between school runs, she also helped out at Dormers Well Junior School, near where she lives in Southall.
“I’ve always worked with children,” says Farah. “I work part-time mornings and afternoons with ECT, and I work in the school in-between.”
Herself a single mum of two daughters and a son, all now in their 20s, Farah is clearly highly experienced with children – and she also understands both the joys and demands that caring and educating children entails.
But when asked about the more challenging sides of the job, it’s noticeable how she simply shrugs these off with a smile: “I love the children – I like the challenges,” she answers.
When the Covid-19 lockdown kicked in in Ealing – and across the UK – in March, it’s perhaps no surprise that Farah took things in her stride.
Normal school runs ceased, as did her work at Dormers Well School. But there were two areas where ECT needed Farah’s help – transporting the children of key workers to school, and as a crew member in the massive operation to deliver food parcels to lonely and isolated elderly people in need.
Taking key worker children to school may not seem very different from normal – but the cloud of Covid-19 often called for extra sensitivity.
“Some children didn’t like going to school because only a few of them were going each day,” explains Farah. “Sometimes the children became upset but the parents needed their children to go to school because they were a key person.”
In such circumstances, Farah focused on reassuring them and staying cheerful, something that was easier given the strong relationships already established. “In normal times, when the children see us they are very happy,” says Farah. “They ask us, ‘When are you coming to collect us?’ Some of them don’t want to go home but just stay on the bus!”
The food deliveries, on the other hand, were a completely new experience for all the ECT staff involved.
“I worked on food deliveries every day when they started – Monday to Friday and sometimes Saturday and Sunday as well,” Farah says.
Modest to a tee, what she does not reveal is that she did not only work almost every day of the week – but in fact she worked all the way through the lockdown, and made more food deliveries than any other passenger assistant in the charity.
“I felt a little bit nervous for the first two weeks but after that I got used to it,” she says. “We had all the PPE [personal protective equipment] and everything that we needed… It was good teamworking – the drivers were very helpful and always helped me if I needed it.”
Far from being a worry, she found the work very satisfying: “I enjoyed it,” she says. “We went to many different houses and some people were stuck living in very big buildings – and they were very happy when we dropped the food.”
Farah recounts one food parcel delivery that she made to an apartment block in Acton. “It’s a very tall building with something like 21 floors and the lift was out of order,” she says. “I took the food upstairs to one lady who was very old. She lived on the 17th floor – and she was so surprised to see me! She asked, ‘How can you come up all those stairs?’ She was so happy and grateful, and blessed me for coming up to her – so I was very happy too.”
Farah adds that the teamwork at ECT also made a big difference, especially during such challenging times: “Sometimes the food parcels were very heavy to take up the stairs but the driver always helped me,” she says.
“There was also an occasion when we discovered that somebody was allergic to milk and so Anthony, the driver, went and bought lactose-free milk to give to them – and they were very happy.”
The food delivery days were intense, particularly when they first started. The two-person ECT teams would deliver between 35 and 40 parcels each day, all across the borough, starting before 9am and finishing late afternoon.
“The first week I was quite tired but then I got used to it,” says Farah. “I lost weight as well! I worked in lots of very tall buildings – and always used the stairs.
“Even though it was sometimes tiring I enjoyed it. People were very happy when we brought them food – so I forgot my tiredness and I felt very happy as well.”
Driver Anthony Kelly (pictured above and below), who has partnered with Farah on the school minibus since 2016, was pleased that they were able to stay together as a team during the lockdown: “Everybody wants to work with her!” he says.
“Usually we take children with special educational needs to Springhallow School – Farah is very good with the kids and knows how to manage them. She helps them if they are upset and she can wind them down when they are all excited. We were both missing the children when the schools closed,” he says.
“But when that stopped during the lockdown we had an opportunity to help out with the Ealing Together project, dropping emergency food parcels to people around the borough,” says Anthony.
“She was just as great working with the older and vulnerable people we met during the food deliveries. She made sure those in the ‘shielded’ group were looked after; she always took care to check that they were receiving the right parcels – particularly when there were special dietary needs. After all what good is tinned meat to a vegan or rich tea biscuits to a coeliac? Farah always understood that.”
Anthony describes Farah as “very warm and caring” with passengers and team members alike – sometimes bringing in cakes to share, for example, or making a cuppa for colleagues after a long shift.
But despite these gestures she “never seeks any attention,” he emphasises. “I always knew Farah was great at looking after children on the bus – now I know that Farah is simply great at looking after everyone!”
For her part, Farah describes ECT as "a very happy team”. She explains: “If anyone is stuck or has a problem, they can call the office, who sort it out. If anything happens on our school run, they say don’t worry. They give you support."
“It would be very hard for the community if ECT didn’t exist,” she says. “The charity plays a big part in this community and gives so much support. I am very proud to be part of ECT.”
Do you know someone who needs transport, please get in touch!