With the pandemic continuing, we spoke to Marion Mortimer from one of the charities we are fundraising for, Home-Start Reading, about why she loves her work, difficulties supporting Reading families during lockdown and how we can all help.
Could you give us an overview of what Home-Start Reading does and who it supports?
Home-Start Reading is a Reading based charity that supports local families who are going through a difficult time. This could be for a variety of reasons including post-natal depression, multiple births, disabilities, chronic illness, poor mental health, isolation or a parent who has limited experience. Our work is especially focussed on the first 5 years of a child’s life, so the family needs to have at least 1 child of pre-school age.
The charity provides a home-visiting volunteer to visit a family once a week, to help the parents give their children the best possible start in life.
In addition to Home-Visiting, we also run 2 Family Groups for families who find it particularly difficult to engage with local services. They meet every week in Whitley and Dee Park, Tilehurst. Play leaders engage the parents with their children's play, wellbeing, language and socialisation.
We run three innovative postnatal depression courses a year, and from 2021 will expand our mental health targeted work to include therapeutic support for vulnerable prospective mums and dads and, especially, for children showing emotional distress.
What do you think makes the charity unique?
Home-Start Reading seeks to support the families in as flexible approach as possible. We are not an advice giving charity, rather we seek to ‘walk alongside’ those who need practical support, encouragement, gentle guidance or empathy. We don’t place a time limit on our support, but rather work with the family, until we come to a mutual agreement that they no longer need our support. That support continues while there is still a pre-school aged child in the home.
What is your background and role at Home-Start Reading?
I am one of 2 Home-Visiting Co-ordinators, and together we are responsible for working with both the families and their volunteers. We meet and assess the families’ needs, and look forward to when we are able to link them with a suitable volunteer. We also recruit, train and supervise our volunteers – who come from many different walks of life.
I used to be a volunteer with Home-Start and was very excited when this job came up – I was very keen to apply – and here I am now 7 years on..!
What are your favourite aspects of the role?
I love seeing how a good match between a family and a volunteer can make such a difference to a family’s life. Being involved with families who progress when they are coping with some incredibly challenging issues, is a real privilege. It’s also great to see our volunteers enjoying the relationship that develops between them and their families.
What did you want to do as a child? Have you always wanted to work in the sector?
Thinking about this question brought back a memory of a photo of me when I was maybe 5 or 6 – standing next to a Christmas tree in my new nurse’s outfit and medicine bag! I always wanted to be a nurse, and trained at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. I worked as a nurse for over 25 years, and in the latter years also volunteered with Home-Start here in Reading. It was a big decision to move into working for the charity sector, but not one that I have regretted. I think my desire has always been to work with people – I love talking with folks, getting to know more about themselves and those around them. It’s so encouraging to see families grow in confidence and independence to tackle some of the challenges in their lives.
Have you seen a greater need for your services during lockdown? How has lockdown affected your existing clients?
Definitely! Isolation is a very common challenge for our families, and Covid has just made hard situations even worse. I think it is widely agreed that the impact of Coronavirus, and the resulting lockdowns, has magnified the many challenges that families face; be it cramped/unsuitable housing, domestic abuse, financial/employment instability or mental health issues. The pressure on many Reading families is now enormous.
How have the current restrictions impacted your ability to provide support to those in need?
Since the end of March 2020 we have been unable to visit the families in their homes, and we have also had to abruptly stop our group support. This has meant that our ability to support the families practically have been very significantly restricted. Not being able to give that much needed hands-on support, or the face to face emotional support that is so often needed.
What sort of things are you now doing to help families that you weren’t doing before the pandemic?
During lockdown while we have been unable to spend time with the families in their homes or at the Family Groups, we have delivered to each family home’s doorstep a number of different activity bags and toys. A huge range of things to help reduce the effects of lockdown: urgent deliveries of baby milk initially, then treasure hunts, sunflower seed planting kits, craft activities, outdoor games, and plenty more! These gifts were kindly donated by a number of local donors.
Those families that were receiving the support of a Home-Visiting volunteer when lockdown occurred now receive regular phone calls, or video chats to keep in touch, and for those where it is possible, they have been meeting up for a walk and a chat in a park – all socially distanced of course!
We closed our Gifted online shop for four months due to lockdown and the events we were planning to attend this summer were cancelled. How has the pandemic affected Home-Start’s fundraising activities this year?
Like every charity, Covid has had a devastating effect on our fundraising. Our biggest event is the Reading Half Marathon, which was postponed in April and has since been cancelled for 2020. This has been a significant financial blow. Summer is also the time when supporters take on challenges such as the colour run, or sponsored walks and bike rides, but with individuals having to face so many new challenges on a personal level we understand that fundraising has dropped off the radar for many people. We are also acutely aware that many local businesses are under a great deal of financial stress and not in the best position to be approached about helping us through our own tough times.
What can the local community do to help families and children who need support? And how can they help Home-Start Reading?
The best thing that anyone with parenting experience and a couple of hours a week to spare can do, is volunteer. We would be nothing without our incredible volunteers, who offer support to young families helping them out of their times of crisis. We are also always so grateful for anyone willing to take on a fundraising challenge on our behalf. And on a very simple level, just liking and sharing our social media posts is great at helping spread the word about our work; you never know who may read it and be able to help in some way. And if anyone reading this works for or knows someone who works for a company with CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), a partnership could potentially make a huge difference to us.
Have you seen any positives emerge from the current situation? What gives you hope for the future?
It has been amazing how the families have dug deep and worked hard to keep things going in their homes. It’s been incredible to see how they have shown what resilience they have to cope with additional pressure and keep caring for their children despite the challenges.
Hope for the future comes from seeing what our families have been able to cope with, and knowing that they will get through this – we all need a little bit of care and support through these times!
There are also many new volunteers waiting to support a family. Once restrictions are lifted enough, they will be excited to start their journey with a new family. We’re looking forward to it!