Parenting lifeline on a knife-edge

A charity working tirelessly to support parents in distress is now in dire need itself.After 28 years, Sheffield's HomeStart may be facing closure. Jo Davison reports

How alone can one woman feel?

Stacey knew the true meaning of isolation. Her husband had just walked out, she was suffering from post-natal depression and she barely knew a soul in this city.

She realised her little boy needed her desperately. But the daily tasks of motherhood, let alone the joys, felt way beyond her. Most mornings the depressed young mother could barely muster the inclination to dress herself, let alone her child.

Days were shuffled through in pyjama-clad misery. Until one woman, just wanting to help another at a time in need, arrived on her doorstep and held out her hand in friendship and support.

It was an unpaid volunteer from the leading national child and family support charity Home-Start. And her help was accepted with gratitude.

Stacey is one of over 4,000 young mothers who have found themselves gently having their lives turned around by a total stranger; someone who is there only to help, not judge - and is never paid a penny for it.

It is HomeStart's trademark - and what makes it one of the most successful supporters of UK parents in need.

Says Karen Ritchie, chief executive of the Sheffield branch: "Stacey had been so miserable she rarely went out of the house with her son. She felt so alone because she didn't have any friends or family to help her.

"Our volunteer started by helping her to get to playgroup. From there, life started to change. She met another mum who lived down the road with a child of the same age and they became good friends.

"Now she is one of our 4,161 success stories. Thanks to the volunteer who struck up a relationship with her, Stacey's depression lifted and she went on to further her education. She did a First Aid course and her level 1 NVQ in childcare and now is planning to become a childminder.

"She told us something we hear so often: 'Just knowing that my HomeStart volunteer was coming gave me something to look forward to and made sure I didn't stay in my pyjamas all day.

"I don't wake up wishing I could go back to sleep any more'."

Words of thanks like Stacey's tell Karen and her team they are doing a vital job.

But for how long can it continue? Cash-strapped Sheffield City Council has to cut the money it gives to support local charities - and HomeStart is in the firing line.

Its staff are waiting to find out their fate.

Later this month, Sheffield's HomeStart will find out whether it has the money it needs to survive.

"We have been supporting local families for nearly 30 years, but now we are facing a crisis. In the recession, like so many other valuable charitable organisations, we are under threat of closure," says Karen.

"Almost 60 per cent of our funding, 90,000 a year, comes from Local Authority sources. They are under threat because of the Spending Review. We rely heavily on that cash to run our home-visiting service, the very core of what we do.

"Already we have heard that we will not be receiving any further funding from Children's Social Care to continue our work with parents who have children with a disability. We are praying there is not more bad news."

With no cash aid from the council, HomeStart Sheffield would grind to a halt within a year, says Karen.

"It's time to speak up about the work we do in this city," she says. "We work tirelessly to ensure parents get the support they need to give their children the best outcomes in life.

"There is no service that does what we do and we need the funds to be able to keep doing it.

"The most vulnerable families in Sheffield are counting on us to be their lifeline. We are waiting on a knife-edge."Factfile

HomeStart runs more services and has more volunteers supporting more families than any other family support charity in the UK.

It was founded in Leicester in 1973 and now has schemes across five continents.

Its 325 UK schemes are supported by 15,000 Home-Start volunteers visiting families at home each week.

Volunteers provide non-judgemental practical and emotional support and help build the family's confidence and ability to cope.

Usually referred by social services, health visitors and support workers, they are there for parents battling against isolation or bereavement, those juggling the pressure of a multiple birth, illness or disability as well as those who are simply finding parenting a struggle.

The Sheffield branch was set up 28 years ago and has supported 4,161 families in that time - an average of 250 families a year. It has 100 volunteers at any one time.

People can help HomeStart by making a donation, arranging a fund raising event, volunteering their time or raising awareness.

Go to the "support us" page at www.hssheffield.org.uk

'I remember thinking how little I had to offer my baby'

Small wonder HomeStart Sheffield's boss Karen Ritchie has such empathy for the mothers with young children her volunteers help through life's trials and tribulations.

She has been in their shoes. Karen was just 18 when she accidentally fell pregnant.

"People think most teenagers deliberately get pregnant; I believe most of them simply make the same mistake I did. I was shy and awkward and just looking for someone to love me. That lack of self-esteem is at the root of it for many teenage mothers," says Karen, now 41.

She clearly remembers the terror she felt the day she decided to tell her parents. And how becoming a young mother initially swamped her with feelings of despair.

"I remember to this day looking at my baby and thinking what little I had to offer her: I was single, lived with my mum in Worksop, had no job, had no career prospects, no money," she says.

"I suffered with postnatal depression because I was blessed with a child who was very intelligent, needed constant stimulation and didn't need sleep.

"I was exhausted, plus I just couldn't cope emotionally or physically with being a mum.

"It was such a huge life change for me. I had no idea how difficult having a baby would be. I had no idea how to feed a baby, change a nappy or comfort my daughter. Mum taught me everything."

Every time her volunteers are called upon to support a teenage girl whose parents have kicked her out to face motherhood alone, she is eternally thankful for the love and help she received.

"If it wasn't for my mum I don't know how I would have coped," she says. "Many of the women we help are teenage mums who don't have family around. They're under so much pressure and they have no-one to ask for help."

Karen joined HomeStart 13 years ago and is passionate about being able to give friendship and support to those women. "We really can make a young mother's life a little bit better by giving her a break and a friendly face to talk to for a few hours a week," she says.

"People feel their volunteer is coming to visit them because they want to, whereas professionals are paid a salary to help them.

"That is really important to their self-esteem and makes them feel genuinely cared about. We also work very hard to match up the volunteer's life experiences with the families they support."

It's a mentoring process; single parents who have found their feet help others do the same. Parents of disabled children end up passing on the benefits of their experiences to others just starting out on the same path.

It works, says Karen, who knows from personal experience how much difference a kindly mentor can make to someone's life.

While studying on an Open University course, she met a mentor-tutor.

Karen says: "Her name was Janet Parr and I would love to see her again and tell her how much of an impact she had on my life. She convinced me to apply to Sheffield University. I would never have thought I was clever enough."

Karen studied social policy and sociology. It was a tough three years. By then she had a partner and another baby.

"I was juggling two children under five and a job. If anyone said I had to go back and do those three years again, I would say on your bike," Karen smiles. "But it made me realise what I was capable of. I got a 2:1 honours degree and made my mum proud for what seemed was the first time in my life.

"I now look back and value the road I have travelled. My eldest daughter, Leomi, is now 21 and at university in Lincoln studying Bio Veterinary Science. My youngest, Caitlin, is 18 and off to Nottingham University this month to do children's nursing.

"I'm the proof that with support, a scared young single mum can turn her life around - and do a good job of motherhood."

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