Cash crisis threatens future of vital Sheffield service

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After 34 years of helping struggling parents, a Sheffield charity now needs its own lifeline...

One of Sheffield’s longest-serving helplines, which has helped thousands of stressed-out parents over three decades, is facing closure.

A cash crisis means Parent Lifeline has just months left to help mothers and fathers who feel in dire need.

A team of 20 volunteers, all parents themselves, provide vital emotional support to around 600 callers a year

A registered Charity based on Carver Street in the city centre, it runs a phone listening service late at night and runs successful courses, from helping children deal with divorce to building bridges between parents and teenagers.

It manages to run on just £15,000 a year, thanks to its team of 20 unpaid volunteers.

But Sheffield City Council has now axed its support, ending a £7,500 a year grant which paid for Parent Lifeline’s co-ordinator.

“If we don’t find the money we cannot carry on helping families,” says acting chair Sue Day.

“People often come to us in real distress. When the phone rings, your heart jumps. Often there is crying on the other end for several minutes. Others are angry, or beside themselves with worry. Where can those people turn if we cease to exist? There isn’t another local confidential helpline for parents.”

Volunteers angrily claim the council’s ‘penny-pinching’ will reap it more expense.

“What is £7,500 to the council? We make that money go such a long way by being there for people exactly when they need it. If they don’t get that support, their problems could worsen considerably,” says Sue, a former teacher who became a volunteer 28 years ago.

“We cannot go without a fight because we know what a difference we make to people’s lives.”

The organisation has enough money for just a few more months and is asking the public and local companies to help through fund-raising or donations.

Says Sue: “We need new young volunteers with IT and communication or marketing skills to help us tell everyone what we do and why we need to carry on.”

n Parent Lifeline has seen huge changes in its 34-year life.

In the Seventies, distraught parents often rang from a call box, time and again shovelling coins in as the pips went. Callers were usually young mothers struggling to cope with babies who wouldn’t feed or sleep, or toddlers with uncontrollable tantrums.

Now parents ring on mobiles - and most calls are about teenagers. “It’s not surprising. Over the last 30 years it is the teenager for whom life has changed most dramatically,” says former teacher Dot Balcombe, who joined as a volunteer two years ago.

“The sexualisation of society, the computer age and image pressures all take their toll on the teenager and his or her family.

“We listen to fears about school bullies, teens refusing to go to school, drinking under age or taking drugs. Parents call because they are afraid their daughters are becoming anorexic, or could be being groomed for sex by older men they met on the internet.”

Parents who have split up and are struggling to help their children are frequent callers too.

The organisation was set up in 1978 by a group of young mothers in the wake of the Maria Colwell tragedy. The seven-year-old slipped through the Social Services net of care and was killed by her stepfather.

But the need is still there. Says Dot: “There are so many problems the modern family is trying to get through. People can pick up the phone and talk anonymously to us. We won’t judge or interrupt.”

The fact is, says this city lifeline, the parenting never stops.

A council spokesperson said : “This group have funding until the end of June, but unfortunately they have not been successful in the new Voluntary Sector Grants Fund process so they will not get any of this funding after July 1.

“However, they may be eligible for the Council’s new small grant fund when that is launched and we will ensure they have details of this as soon as this is available.”