Newcastle United Foundation Buddy Scheme friends meet face-to-face after 16 months of weekly calls

After 16 months of weekly phone calls together, a Newcastle United Foundation employee has finally met the man he has created a lasting friendship with during the coronavirus crisis.

Nick Cassidy, a Youth Violence Project Officer at the charity, immediately volunteered to join the Newcastle United and Foundation Buddy Scheme back in April 2020, providing meaningful support for elderly and vulnerable United season-ticket holders facing extended periods of isolation alone.

Among the 988 supporters initially contact by volunteering Foundation and Club staff, Nick began chatting to lifelong Magpies' fan, Les Ruffell - a retired 71-year-old living alone in Leeds during lockdown.

With Les no longer able to travel to support United at every home game and to see his family, he instead shared his connection to the Club with Nick, as well as their passion for United and their hopes to see football returning to St. James' Park soon.

Week by week, the pair forged a close friendship through the phone and even exchanged Christmas greeting cards through the post in December 2020.

Half a year on, Nick and Les were finally able to shake hands in person as the friends met for the first time at St. James' Park - sitting side-by-side in the stands to see Newcastle United v Leeds United.

Les said: "I'm eternally grateful to have the chance to be even called in the first place and right from that very first phone call, Nick was kind, friendly and very empathetic.

"It does feel quite strange to be meeting together in person after only getting to know each other over the phone, so it's really fantastic to be here at St. James' Park in person and to finally enjoy a game together.

"It all began by just talking about Newcastle United, but by the end, we could talk about anything - each other's families, ups and downs in life, work, and anything else going on in each other's lives.

"Now it's like talking to an old friend. When we arrange our call, it's something I very much look forward to."

Les has expressed his gratitude to Nick and the Newcastle United and Foundation Buddy Scheme on several occasions, taking to writing to his beloved Club to share his thanks and praise for Nick's professionalism and dedication throughout the pandemic.

Nick Cassidy, Newcastle United Foundation Youth Violence Project Officer, said: "It's been amazing to actually meet Les after all this time and to just have a chat face-to-face which is something we probably all took for granted before the crisis.

We all struggled during lockdown, but it was definitely more challenging for vulnerable and elderly people, so to me it was important to be part of the Buddy Scheme to offer that extra support where I could.

- Nick Cassidy, Youth Violence Project Officer, Newcastle United Foundation.

Nick continued: "It's been a pleasure getting to know Les and I can't count the number of calls we've had or how many minutes we've had on the phone together, talking about anything and everything.

"Finally shaking his hand and having a chat in person feels great and we'll be getting our next meeting at St. James' Park arranged soon!"

In total, 988 season-ticket holders were contacted by volunteering Foundation and Club staff who could opt-in to continue weekly phone calls throughout 2020 in a bid to reduce feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and stress in lockdown.

Steve Beharall, Head of Newcastle United Foundation, said: "We couldn't be prouder of Nick and the incredible effort he has put in to supporting our community particularly during such a challenging time for us all.

Nick's commitment to others is truly inspirational and it's clear he has made a friend for life in Les - a fantastic testament to Nick who is a credit to our Foundation."

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