During the 1970s, volunteer support worker Margaret Harrison (right) set up a group of mums to help families in need in her hometown of Leicester. More than 40 years later, Home-Start supports 29,000 families a year in the UK and operates in 25
When our three children were young, I did lots of voluntary work in the health, social work and education fields. Along with the social services department, I helped support children in the care of the local authority where the family had broken down.
My role was to recruit and match other volunteers with these children, so they could feel special and have some fun together. It wasn’t long before the volunteers said to me: “If only we could have supported the family together BEFORE it broke up, we feel our time could have been better spent.”
There were so many families who wanted helpThat was when I realised that we needed to do something to help prevent families from breaking up where possible. Back in the 70s, the professional health care and social workers in my area focused on looking at problems and trying to fix them, but there was no emotional input at all.
Instead of the professionals doing what they thought their clients needed, the families we were working with needed someone with time to care about them, listen to them, really understand them and then respond to what they said they needed. And that’s the sort of support another volunteer parent can provide.
At that time, I was also working with a Family Service Unit drop-in centre. The mums would come to see the community worker while I looked after the children, mostly in the kitchen, doing water play and singing. What I found was that, whatever they were doing with the professionals, the mums just wanted to come and talk to me, mother to mother. A lot of them said: “Come and visit me at home, Margaret, so we can really talk.”
So, with the community worker’s blessing, I started going to their homes, where their problems were. We had a lot of talk and teasing, but I was also able to give them practical help and friendship. That’s what they seemed to need and it reinforced my idea that we should be supporting parents and their children together.
Social workers, teachers and probation officers etc carry out all the legal and professional tasks they are required to do, but they can’t provide the emotional support for parents that being alongside another parent can give.
Family-friendly power to the peopleThe support people can give each other is so powerful. And that’s what we need to regenerate in our society: that sense of community spirit and helping each other. Putting the neighbour back into neighbourhood is infectious.
What Home-Start provides is support, friendship and practical help, and because that’s so enabling, many of the parents we visit then choose to become volunteers themselves.
One of the first Home-Start mothers had five children. Her husband was in prison, and when she chose to become a Home-Start volunteer herself, her neighbours began to say: “Well, if Janet can do it, so can we. Let’s be volunteers for Home-Start too.”
Being a volunteer is very rewarding. They receive training and support for the role. The Home-Start volunteers say they get as much out of it as the people they’re helping. When they leave, they often say, “Gosh, I’ve gained so much more than I’ve given.” You have your expenses paid and during the training you get a free lunch as well!
I remember asking one volunteer who’d been with us for 30 years: “Why do you stay? Why do you still do it?” She said: “Well it’s so varied and flexible. You can work with a group of families, you can do one-to-one visiting, you can have a break for three months if your own daughter gets married… Then you come back and you get a different family with different needs.” So that is joyful.
One volunteer, Peggy, who also volunteered for over 30 years, was nicknamed 'Tuesday' by one of the families she supported. The mum used to say, “Wait till Tuesday comes!" The children knew that something good would happen then. When Peggy arrived, the children would say, "Hooray, here comes Tuesday!"*
That’s what Home-Start friends are forI think families like the fact that Home-Start volunteers are just parents like they are, with no authority and no powers – to remove children, for example – and that’s actually very enabling. It's been called the power of powerlessness.
Some of our volunteers have been through the same sorts of emotions and difficulties bringing up children as the people they’re supporting. So when appropriate they might draw on their own experiences in order to help them.
The support provided by Home-Start is open-ended and informal – what families need is friendship, practical help and fun until they've learned to cope again.
Volunteers may offer anything from a simple cup of tea and a friendly chat to whatever the parents say they need. Being a mum or dad can be relentless and some parents feel exhausted, isolated and overwhelmed by their responsibilities. Sometimes all they want is to know that somebody’s coming in with time for them, affirming their role so that they can be understood, parent to parent.
Perhaps the parent and the volunteer will do things together while the children are accessing other services in the community. Sometimes it’s a lot more profound than that. For example if the mum has postnatal depression, we’ll organise a group of two or three volunteers who go in daily in rotation to provide significant support. Or we might be needed to help a parent or child with physical or mental health needs to access appropriate health services.
I remember visiting one family where I knew they were all at home and they didn’t open the door. Eventually the mother came downstairs and let me in. She’d been crying. Her children had tipped cereal and sugar all over the floor in the kitchen and then weed on it. So I said, “Oh, come on, let’s get down and clean it up together.” And within two minutes we were all giggling and the children were helping too!
Changing and improving services for familiesOfficially, once the youngest child in a family is over five, the formal visiting from the Home-Start volunteer ends, but informally it often carries on. I’m still in touch with very many of the families I’ve supported. They keep in contact and let me know what’s happening in their lives and I let them know what's happening in mine. It’s lovely.
Very early on, the Social Science Research Council [now the Economic and Social Research Council] looked at the way Home-Start was operating. They recognised that support preceeds the uptake of services, and that however many services you provide, the most vulnerable families will rarely access them unless they have a friend at their side.
Often, the people we help are less able to access professional services, so they need somebody to be their advocate, and help them understand how to get the help that’s available.
I think many things have improved for families since Home-Start began in the 1970s. Housing and heating are better. Education is relatively wonderful. But all the articles and programmes about parenting on television, the radio and in magazines may make parents feel they’re not attaining perfection.
Parents are also under pressure to give their children material possessions – technology and everything. I think we have to provide opportunities and discussions together that are more exciting than what’s on their tablets or mobile phones!
Going global: the politics of caringI was very disappointed with the last government – so many Home-Start schemes had their funding cut and the whole SureStart programme was in abeyance. Because local authorities are overstretched, they're not prepared to pick up services that the government had previously funded.
With the new government, I’d like to see a greater acknowledgement of how communities can help themselves and help each other. The value of that mustn’t be underestimated.
Despite the cuts, Home-Start is fairly stable and we now help families in 25 other countries from Australia to Zambia. They have all adopted and adapted the Home-Start approach within their own cultures. The latest is Japan, where within about four years they’ve set up 60 schemes and their government is now planning to increase that to 100 within the next two years, in order to support displaced families after the earthquake and nuclear power plant disasters. They’re funding Home-Start because they value the support that can be provided, parent-to-parent.
It’s incredible to witness what Home-Start has achieved. At the end of the 1980s I was suddenly given an OBE, which was meaningless to me at first. But when I started to think that it was on behalf of everyone, it made a lot of sense. Then about 10 years later I got a CBE – I like to think of it as an award for Combined Brilliant Effort!
Photos by Simon Ridgeway, Mark Bryce, Immo Klink Photography and Creative Photography
*Read the full Home-Start story in Margaret’s book, Hooray! Here comes Tuesday.
Tell your own story on the Storyboard.
Come and chat on Logarty talk.