FAMILY MATTERS: Reaching out to families in need

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IT ALL started when a three-year-old ran into a road with a knife.

That was what provoked Margaret Harrison to start the nationally-respected Home-Start charity, which supports families with children.

The charity was set up in Leicester after the knife incident in 1973 and the Sheffield branch has been running for 28 years, supporting more than 4,161 families in that time.

“We train volunteers to go into people’s homes and support them with looking after children and chores,” says Home-Start administrator, Alison Vaughan, who is herself a mother of two children.

The charity provides support for a vast range of families, from teenage mothers to mums suffering from post natal depression.

“We do support a wide-range of parents,” said Alison.

“And we train our staff for nine weeks before they start so they are able to cope with various situations.

“But our volunteers tend to be parents anyway, so they understand what it’s like bringing children up.”

One of the most common issues affecting mothers in Sheffield is post natal depression.

Alison said: “I don’t know if it’s because it is more prevalent or of it’s because people are more open about it now, but we are coming across quite a few cases.”

Other issues the Home-Start team deals with includes parents whose children have behavioural problems, mental health issues and mums and dads who are living in isolation and need help with everyday tasks.

“Our help isn’t statutory, it’s usually because the parent has told their GP or the council that they want some help.

“We are not there to tell them what to do - just to help out as much as we can.”

The scope of a volunteer’s job is enormous, and includes helping parents access community groups and introducing them to local amenities such as the library, doctor’s surgery and dentist.

“Sometimes just sitting and chatting to a parent is enough - the company alone can make all the difference,” said Alison.

The increase in parents seeking support is a reflection of a shift towards a more transient society, one where the quest for work often means leaving the extended family behind.

“These days there are lots of people living far away from their families - sometimes even in a different country - so they don’t have the support network that existed in communities of past generations,” said Alison.

Home-Start is, in many ways, a bit like a ‘surrogate aunty’ - dropping in every week to help with tasks and easing the burden of parents. The idea is that our volunteers empower parents rather than make them dependant on us.”

But the number of referrals to the charity has increased.

“The number of more complex cases involving a parent’s mental health has also increased,” said Alison.

Sara McClean is the senior co-ordinator of Home-Start and unlike Alison, Sara makes visits to parents to help out.

“It’s a brilliant job and very rewarding,” she said.

“You have to build up a rapport with the families and make them feel comfortable. The initial visit’s about going in and letting people know about the service.”

“We worked with a woman who had twins prematurely and she found the voluntary help very valuable.”

But it’s not just practical support that Home-Start provides, volunteers often provide emotional support too.

“It can be tough being a parent, especially when it’s your first child. We work with young mums but also older mums who have had careers and suddenly find themselves in a completely different situation to what they are used to. There are other mums who have fled domestic abuse so we will visit them in the refuge and provide our service there.”

But in spite of the sometimes demanding scenarios Sara finds herself in, she thrives on the job.

“I really love it. I said I’d stop doing this once my son started secondary school and he’s now taking his A’ Levels,” she added.

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