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How Home-Start in Suffolk reaches out to families as they battle to pull through

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Jasmine was 21, with a two-year-old daughter. When her mother died shortly after a diagnosis of cancer, she was left to care for her two young siblings, as well as her own child.

Daily life was a challenge as she struggled to cope, and deal with her own grief as well as that of her siblings.

Nadia had fled an abusive relationship, and was living in a refuge waiting to be housed. She needed to become part of her new community, and access services and groups with her children.

Home Start in Suffolk helps families with young children throughout the county
Home Start in Suffolk helps families with young children throughout the county

Jan worked long hours in a food processing factory. His wife had post-natal depression and was alone at home from 6am to 10pm, six days a week.

Her anxiety and depression were so severe she could not go out alone. Their baby was not accessing vital appointments.

Three families. Three very different situations, but one thing in common: they all desperately needed help.

Home Start in Suffolk helps families with young children throughout the county
Home Start in Suffolk helps families with young children throughout the county

For them, that help was there in the shape of Home-Start in Suffolk, a charity which has given practical and emotional support to families with young children across the county for 22 years.

It has a network of more than 270 fully-trained home-visiting and telephone/virtual support volunteers, whose ages range from 20 to 88.

Earlier this year, their work was rewarded with a Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service – the equivalent of an MBE.

And with pleas for Home-Start’s help soaring, more are desperately needed.

Some of Home-Start in Suffolk's 270 volunteers
Some of Home-Start in Suffolk's 270 volunteers

Each family is matched with a suitable volunteer, and a bespoke package is created for them depending on their needs.

Care is taken to ensure the volunteers – who come from a diverse range of backgrounds, gender, race, faith and culture – get a good match, too.

One of their referrals was Tom, who had not been to school for over a year, and refused to come out of his bedroom.

He needed a male volunteer to talk to, and to play board games and computer games; someone who would befriend him and not let him down.

home-start in Suffolk logo
home-start in Suffolk logo

Helping to build his confidence, form relationships and increase his self-esteem was vital to enable him to go back to school.

Celia was a refugee living with her family in temporary accommodation, and spoke little English. With no friends or family in the UK, she was lonely when her husband was working and the children were at school.

She wanted to meet people in her community and learn English, and needed someone to help her access an English language course and spend school holiday activities with the children.

Meanwhile, Adrian, who looked after his 10-year-old old daughter, needed support because, after changing his job to become her main carer, he felt lonely and isolated, which had affected his emotional wellbeing.

Volunteers are there for families as they find their way through all kinds of challenges, including social isolation, poverty, illness, mental health, bereavement, family breakdowns and domestic abuse.

Support is provided through weekly visits and calls, or group work.

The matching process is overseen by family support manager Alison Grant, who says the pandemic made them rethink almost overnight the way they worked.

With the usual home visits impossible during lockdowns, they turned to phone calls and Zoom meetings.

Alison Grant, family support manager, Home-Start in Suffolk
Alison Grant, family support manager, Home-Start in Suffolk

“We adapted and our volunteers were absolutely with us on that journey,” said Alison.

“Telephone support is something that is really positive for us. It works really well for some families. It also means volunteers can work county-wide in a much more flexible way.”

Home-Start has seen a 46 per cent rise in referrals across the county. “For the first time, those in the west of the county are mirroring those in Ipswich and the coastal area,” said Alison. “The need is really increasing.

“We have always held ourselves to account. If a family needs our support, they don’t need it in six months time – they need it now.”

The average wait for help is only 10 days from referral, but can be as little as 24 hours if the case is urgent.

Home-Start in Suffolk is the only organisation contracted by Suffolk County Council to provide vital early intervention support to families in this way.

People needing help are flagged up by professionals like health visitors, teachers, midwives, children’s centres, social workers and specialist services. Families can also get in touch themselves.

And during the pandemic, the number self-referring – previously only 10 per cent – soared.

“There was a massive jump,” said the charity’s fundraising and marketing manager Ali Watson. “A lot of families contacting us were really desperate.

Ali Watson, fundraising and marketing manager, Home-Start in Suffolk
Ali Watson, fundraising and marketing manager, Home-Start in Suffolk

“And it was a different cohort, who had never needed support before. We had a really high number of mental health issues and isolation during lockdown.

“But in my experience, people struggled more in the second lockdown than the first. It was winter.

“Mental health was spiralling, and an increasing number of families really struggled financially as well.

“The impact was huge. We had one call from a mum saying ‘I have no food in the house’. They’d had to take the car off the road, her partner was furloughed, and they didn’t have enough money to buy things for two days at a time.

“Another mum, a single parent, was frightened to go out shopping for fear of catching Covid. She said ‘who’s going to look after my children if I get ill?’.”

Former teacher Sylvia has been a Home-Start in Suffolk volunteer for 13 years, and fundraised for eight years before that.

So far, she has brought comfort and support to 19 families. I have had a big variety of families in my time with very varied needs,” she says. “The work we do is satisfying and enriching. We work at a family’s pace.

“Whatever issue a family has, the volunteer works as a team with the co-ordinator and something is put in place.”

She says knowing the remit of the help they can give makes life easier.

“With Home-Start, you can be helping people but always within these boundaries.

“You don’t take it upon yourself to make serious decisions on a unilateral basis. A weekly visit, that’s what you do.”

Sylvia also praised the charity’s marvellous co-ordinators. “It’s very well organised and supported,” she said. “We have contact with others in the team ... it’s nice hearing what other people are dealing with, and how they are dealing with it.”

While Sylvia has years of experience, volunteer Jan is a much more recent recruit.

“I joined during the pandemic,” says Jan, who fits her Home-Start work around a career as a PR consultant and is now supporting her second family.

“When we had that first lockdown, I realised how lucky I was living in the countryside with a garden, and it kept occurring to me what a terrible time some people must be having.

“I thought of single mums confined to flats in towns and cities and only going out an hour a day for exercise.

“And I remembered a conversation with someone who talked with so much passion about the work Home-Start does, and the difference it makes to people’s lives.”

Home-Start in Suffolk helps young families throughout the county
Home-Start in Suffolk helps young families throughout the county

She and Sylvia agreed volunteers get as much from the role as they give. “The rewards that come with doing the job are immense,” she said.

Home-Start’s work during Covid brought them more recognition, including the Suffolk Award for outstanding services in the community during the pandemic awarded by High Sheriff Edward Creasy.

Meanwhile, Alison Grant and finance officer Louise Potter were given Suffolk Hero Awards by local MPs.

And two volunteers, including Sylvia, recently received a special award from the High Sheriff for their exceptional work within the community, going above and beyond for the families they support.

Home-Start’s work is funded through contracts, grants and fundraising, including donations, events and legacies.

“We struggled with events in the last 18 months as we had to cancel all face-to-face activities,” said Ali.

“We were able to host some online parties, art auctions and we run an extremely successful schools competition and fundraiser, which saw more than 50 Suffolk primary schools sign up, and involved two of our patrons, author Anthony Horowitz OBE and actress Miranda Raison.”

To contact Home-Start in Suffolk for help, go to homestartinsuffolk.org. To volunteer, email Jean Rogers at jean@homestartinsuffolk.org or call 07938 550496.

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