A friendly smile when life's a bit tough

Goodness knows we all need a helping hand from time to time.

Steven Russell

A shoulder to lean on when life's going through a bumpy phase

Goodness knows we all need a helping hand from time to time. Steven Russell hears about a charity offering just that to families - and why we shouldn't confuse it with the AA . . . or harbour prejudices

THE young brothers are having a great time. Ethan, the senior sibling at the ripe old age of two years, is all Ooohs! and Aaahs! and has made a beeline for a toy garage. Jacob, just six months old, is simply mesmerised by all the colours of the playroom. For mum Rachel, her sons' contentedness is a chance to sit and enjoy a hot drink. Such opportunities can't be passed up when you've got young kids, for you know it won't be long before things are once again busy, busy, busy.

Rachel's grateful for the help of a Home-Start Suffolk Coastal volunteer for the past six months or so, who has shared some of the load. She found out about the charity from another mother at toddler group.

“She had been a single mum, and I was becoming a single mum, so she said 'Why don't you apply for it, because you'd be eligible.' She said her Home-Start volunteer had helped look after her little one while she went out and had a run, and had some time to herself, and they got on well.”

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Rachel was referred by her health visitor, met Home-Start Suffolk Coastal co-ordinator Alison Grant to talk about what might be offered, and linked up with a volunteer (whom we'll call Geraldine) when Jacob was a few weeks old.

During the summer, Geraldine often came during the evening to help bath the children and put them to bed. “Now it's either an evening or afternoon, depending on what's suitable for both of us, really - which is lovely,” says Rachel.

“What she does is so varied. She sometimes helps me with my ironing,” she laughs, slightly embarrassed. “She doesn't mind, she keeps reassuring me! And she's just brilliant with the children.”

Geraldine has teenage children of her own and has run playgroups for youngsters. “It's just lovely having somebody who knows what it's like to have children and who's that much more experienced, and knows the hiccups. We spend a lot of our time just talking, me picking her brains, so even if she came and all we did was talk, that would be really worthwhile.”

Sometimes Geraldine accompanies Rachel and her boys on a trip to Ipswich from their rural home near Woodbridge; on other occasions she might take the children out for a walk so their mum can crack on with some housework or have a rest.

“I do have a lot of support from my friends and family and others, and the church I belong to, but it's lovely having somebody who comes every week, because you can then plan things and do what you need to catch up on, whereas other friends tend to be on a more ad hoc basis: if you need them, they'll be there, but it's really nice knowing you've got somebody coming at a certain time,” says Rachel.

“It feels like I've known her a long time because we get on really well and have some interesting chats. You matched me with a good one!” she smiles, catching Alison's eye across the playroom.

Home-Start Suffolk Coastal is part of a national scheme that offers friendly, flexible support and practical help to families with at least one child under the age of five. It's there for folk for whom life is currently a bit of an uphill struggle, the assistance can last weeks or years, and it's free and confidential.

By sharing their time and friendship, volunteers give families a chance to build their confidence and develop new skills.

Families come from a wide variety of backgrounds and are looking for support for many different reasons, including postnatal illness, loneliness, relationship problems, poverty, disability, single parenthood and coping with multiple births or several young children.

Many families contact Home-Start directly; others might be put in touch via their GP, health visitor or social worker.

Schemes are run by paid staff who recruit, train and support volunteers, whom they carefully match with families who ask for help. Home-Start Suffolk Coastal also runs two family groups - in Leiston and Felixstowe - where parents can meet each other.

Home-Start UK has about 340 projects, including two others in Suffolk (Babergh and Mid Suffolk, but not yet Ipswich), 11 in Essex, and five each in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. It's the UK's largest family-support charity, but Tara Somers recognises many people have never heard of it.

The senior co-ordinator at Home-Start Suffolk Coastal admits some folk looking in the phonebook do confuse it with AA breakdown cover or other similar-sounding services! “We get at least five calls a week saying 'Do you take furniture for people starting their homes?'” she laughs. “You can just hear our admin assistant's voice drop!”

Sadly, there are also some people who nurture prejudices about such charities.

“Some would say it's great what we do; others would say families ought to get support elsewhere,” concedes Tara. “Well, realistically, there isn't that support elsewhere. That's why we're here.”

Colleague Alison Grant offers an example. Home-Start Suffolk Coastal held a collection last year outside the Tesco store at Martlesham Heath and the response was surprisingly poor, “with a high number of people saying 'No, I'm not giving to that' - and with that comment that families should be supporting themselves. And the odd comment about 'Well, I'd rather give to an animal charity.' That was quite an eye-opener for us”.

Home-Start works with families across the social spectrum, she stresses. “I think that's what makes us quite special.” Affluence is no guarantee, for instance, against isolation and difficulty in going to group activities.

Look at somewhere like Rendlesham, for instance, where large developments can be home to many families new to the area.

Life has changed over the decades, says Tara. A network of relatives living close by used to offer moral support and practical help. As society has become more mobile - and as Suffolk has become prime commuter country - so fewer families have someone “round the corner” they can turn to.

“And because there are more families with both parents working, they're often not able to build up those friendships at toddler groups and other local settings. That can prove quite isolating, both in some of the small villages and the larger communities.”

Home-Start Suffolk Coastal, which celebrates its 10th birthday in 2009, is currently supporting 51 families and helps between 70 and 80 during an average year. Many folk lack the confidence to leave the house, or need advice about parenting. A volunteer might go with them to a children's centre, say, or a library, and help them grow more assured over time.

“We have a number of people who aren't confident about going to a parent-and-toddler group,” says Tara. “For some people they can be really daunting places, especially if a mum has post-natal depression or is new to the area. So it could be that a volunteer attends a group with them, or we look at a family group. We don't tell people what to do. It's a non-judgemental service, so we go with the flow; we go with what the family wants.”

Alison adds: “It's also about promoting a positive role model. Some parents find it very difficult to play with their children - they perhaps didn't have that themselves - but a volunteer who is comfortable to sit down on the floor and play with a child sometimes breaks down that barrier and enables a parent to be able to do that kind of thing.”

A volunteer can sometimes make all the difference: giving a mum or dad the motivation to go out during the day.

Home-Start Suffolk Coastal is just about able to meet all the requests for help. “We haven't had to turn anyone away yet,” says Tara, “but sometimes we can't make an instant response and have to prioritise. Someone might have to wait a month before we can match them with a volunteer.”

It's a pretty lean machine. Tara's full-time, Alison part-time. There's also a part-time family group leader, an admin assistant working a job-share with the book-keeper, and someone who works on fund-raising a couple of days a week. Then there are playleaders who work at the family groups.

The work is overseen by a board of trustees and management committee drawn from the wider community and responsible for essentials such as insurance, premises and the employment of staff - and the thorny old question of keeping the show on the road.

Some Home-Start schemes get a proportion of their budget from local councils. There wasn't any available when the Suffolk Coastal project began, so sleeves were rolled up and the cash was raised in other ways. There was lottery-based money for six years, but other than that it's been a case of relying on initiative and persuasion.

Money comes from charitable trusts, local businesses, and through the toil of an active funding-raising committee that last year brought in £8,500 - £5,000 more than had ever before been garnered.

The team more or less covers the Suffolk Coastal council district, though Felixstowe - where there's proved to be significant need - was included only about four years ago.

The dream is to expand further to cover Martlesham, Kesgrave and Rushmere St Andrew - where the team knows there are families needing a helping hand.

“We don't want it to be a postcode lottery; we want to say it's Home-Start Suffolk Coastal, and not Suffolk Coastal minus Martlesham, Kesgrave and Rushmere!” says Tara.

Rachel knows from personal experience what a difference those volunteers can make.

“I don't know what the future holds for me and how my work plan will work out,” she says, “but maybe in the future it's something I would do, because it's invaluable.”

To find out more about Home-Start Suffolk Coastal, phone 01394 389402 or email

office@homestartcoastal.co.uk

The national website is www.home-start.org.uk

HOME-Start Suffolk Coastal would love more prospective volunteers. It's currently got 39 folk out and about, helping families by offering what Tara Somers calls a kind of “professional friendship”.

Volunteers are parents themselves or have some experience of that kind of role: foster caring, for instance, or work as a childminder. They could be a young mum or dad, or an older person with grown-up children and perhaps grandchildren. They need to be aged 18-plus, be understanding, friendly and have a practical approach, and be able to give their time. Home-Start Suffolk Coastal prefers people to commit for at least a year, as continued support can be crucial to families.

“Sometimes the volunteer is the one consistent and predictable 'outside person' in a family's life,” explains Alison Grant.

Prospective volunteers go on a preparation course - usually one day a week, over nine or 10 weeks - that looks at areas such as child protection, health and safety, and why families need support.

It's important to remember that a volunteer is there at the invitation of the family, as a friend doing what they can to help for two or three hours a week: being a listening ear, for instance, or playing with the children, or providing an extra pair of eyes and hands.

“It really varies. It's not set in stone and can be very flexible on the day,” explains Tara. “What we say is our volunteers aren't there as baby-sitters; they're not there as cooks or cleaners. We're not saying they wouldn't do all those things; what we're saying is that it's in reason. They might be doing some cleaning with the family - might be doing it with the children as an activity - might be cooking with the family. But they're not an alternative to hired help.”

Home-Start Suffolk Coastal's current volunteers are aged between 27 and 70-something. They come from a variety of backgrounds and all but three are women. The scheme would like more men. Some families, for instance, particularly welcome a male presence as a role model for children.

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