Could you befriend a family in need? That’s the question the charity Home-Start Kirklees is asking, as it prepares to launch a new training course for volunteers. In the past year the Dalton-based organisation, which trains volunteers to work with families who have young children, has supported 128 family groups – and it could help even more if it had a larger pool of helpers.
“We are always looking for additional volunteers,” says Michelle Steadman, one of Home-Start’s co-ordinators.
“We have around 60 volunteers and last year we supported 260 children, but we always have a waiting list of families – some wait up to three months and then we still can’t match them up with anyone.”
The charity, which started in 1999, is part of an umbrella organisation, Home-Start UK, and provides practical and emotional support to families with at least one child under the age of five who are experiencing difficulties.
There are many reasons why families are referred to Home-Start, or ask for help from the organisation.
These range from the problems of lone parenting young children or coping with a child’s disability to struggles with mental health issues or the arrival of twins or triplets.
While some Home-Start families have a troubled background, with children on the child protection register, this is certainly not the case for all.
As Michelle explained: “Around 80% of referrals come from health visitors who recognise that parents are going to struggle.
“A lot of the families we work with have other agencies involved but they are not all troubled families, they just need a friend to support them because they don’t have family down the road or neighbours and friends who can help.”
The vast majority of volunteers have families of their own and some have experiences that make them an invaluable resource.
As scheme leader Donna Craven explains: “We try to match volunteers who have had a particular experience of something – it might be fighting for a diagnosis of autism or ADHD for a child, for example – and put them with a family going through the same thing. Other agencies will send out whichever staff member is free but we can find someone who has shared the experience.”
Home-Start takes an ‘holistic’ approach, adds Michelle.
“We look at what the issues are. A lot of what we do is preventative and tailor-made to the family, which other agencies can’t do. We can really effect changes and get to see what the problems are.”
Volunteer Karen Thomas, a former teacher, says she was looking for a voluntary role “to do with children or gardening, the two things that interest me” when she came across Home-Start.
Since she joined in 2011 she has supported with six families. Her first family had seven children.
“I like being with large families,” says Karen, who feels that social isolation is a problem for many parents helped by Home-Start.
She explained: “One of the families I worked with was a lone dad with four children under the age of three. I helped him to get out and about and go shopping. It can be so much fun and very enjoyable.
“The children get to know you and welcome you in. I try to do activities with them like baking and gardening.”
Riffat Hussain became a volunteer 18 months ago and is still working with her first family unit. While understandably nervous at first, she says Home-Start has an excellent support system for volunteers and she enjoys her weekly family visits.
She said: “I see a mum with three children under the age of five, including a set of twins. She was isolated and not going out much.
“She wanted to spend more time with the eldest child, so we go to the park or for a walk with the children to get her out of the house.
“If they need me and I’m free and can fit it in then I see them more.”
With five children of her own, ranging in age from five to 21, she is an experienced mum with some spare time on her hands now that her youngest child is at school.
She added: “I would like to get a job working term time, but I would still want to volunteer. It’s a very interesting thing to do and it’s been a good experience.
“I think sometimes that even if someone has an extended family they can find it easier to talk to someone from outside because they think their family will judge them.”
Volunteering for a project like Home-Start can provide valuable work experience for a future career in social care or social work.
According to Donna volunteers often find that their own confidence and parenting skills improve as they help families navigate through complex problems related to everything from debt to health issues.
“There is definitely a knock-on effect,” she said. “What they learn helps them in their own lives. Some of our volunteers have gone into social work.”
Because of the sensitive nature of Home-Start’s work, volunteers are carefully vetted and fully trained. The organisation is currently recruiting for the next training course, which begins on June 9 and will run for six weeks (one to two days per week).
Jillian Winnard, a project co-ordinator, says that the strengths of volunteers becomes clear during training.
She added: “We get the feel for the sort of families they could support.
“And we are careful how we place people. We don’t match people who live in the same neighbourhood because although it is a befriending service there have to be boundaries and a professional relationship – we have policies to protect both the families and the volunteers.”
Volunteers, who come from all age groups and walks of life, are reimbursed for using their own cars but not paid for their services.
If you think you would like to become a Home-Start Kirklees volunteer and can spare three hours a week contact email@example.com or call 01484 421925.
Home-Start UK has a total of 18,422 volunteers supporting 29,170 families and 63,308 children. The organisation has more than 288 local Home-Starts working in communities across the UK and with families on British Forces bases in Germany and Cyprus. It estimates that it costs between £1,000 and £1,200 to support a family for a year.