Engaging families at Christmas – good fun and important support

A Better Start

Jo Smith, Community Development Support Officer at Blackpool Better Start takes a look back at the serious side of their Christmas campaign for families.

Jo Smith

One of our biggest community initiatives of the year is always the Winter Wonderland event which we hold annually at Blackpool’s iconic Winter Gardens.

Every year up to 1,000 families attend the event which is promoted as a fun, festive day for families to enjoy.

While we focus on the festive activities to attract parents to attend, the main strategy for the event is to engage families with services and offer support on a number of issues that may be affecting Blackpool families during the festive period.

Every year we invite commissioned services, partners and associated organisations to attend as exhibitors so they are visible to families and can offer support to them on a wide range of issues from debt advice to volunteering, training and development opportunities.

This year we could not hold the event as normal, but were keen to still be able to offer advocacy to parents during this extremely difficult time. With this in mind, we developed a strategy where we could ask parents to apply for a personalised letter from Father Christmas and receive a present of a book, and our team of Community Connectors would then contact each family to discuss any additional needs they may require.

The initiative was launched on our popular Facebook page, and was immediately very well received. 551 families applied for the letter and book over a period of 10 days, which meant we had to close the offer earlier than anticipated to ensure the team were not overwhelmed by the requests.

All of the families that applied for the letter and book were subsequently contacted by a Community Connector. This was so they could have a one-to-one conversation by phone to help identify any issues that the families needed support with. This process also allowed the Connectors to identify which families lived in Better Start wards, and it was discovered that 207 of those that applied were the families we most wanted to reach.

Over December the Community Connectors were tasked with speaking to all the families, and prioritising which families required a face-to-face delivery, and which could have their packs mailed to them to reduce the number of contacts due to Covid. During this time 141 families received direct contact, with the Community Connectors visiting addresses and delivering the letters, books and any additional resources that were identified during the initial phone call. The Connectors dressed as Elves which made the visits very festive and special for the families at this time of year!

It was through these visits and phone calls that we discovered that the quantity of meaningful conversations the Connectors were having with families was higher than we would usually get from our annual Winter Wonderland event.

This may be due to families being more prepared to ask for help due to the extra burden Covid has placed on, or it may be due to the fact that during the event there is so much happening, that families are less likely to have a more meaningful conversation about what support is available to them. This resulted in a higher number of new referrals being made to services across the board, as well as many requests for support with food vouchers and Christmas presents.

In addition to the Father Christmas letter and book deliveries, the Christmas advocacy campaign was also supported heavily on Blackpool Better Start’s social media channels through short films made by our partners. Every day during December, a new film was posted that either offered support and advice to parents or gave ideas to parents about accessible activities they could do with their children. This proved to be a very popular campaign, and engagement with families during December was higher than previous year’s activity.

The Covid pandemic has certainly made the team readdress how we engage families under the current restrictions. Despite the difficulties we have faced, it is has been encouraging to see the team adapt quickly and be able to increase meaningful engagement with the families who have benefited during this time. The feedback we have received has been overwhelmingly positive with comments like, “Thank you so much for all of your help, the food parcel was much appreciated and took away so much pressure” and “Fab thank you, my son loved the book and personalised letter”.

The learning from this will now be shared in the other areas of our work with families.

Jo Smith is Community Development Support Officer at Blackpool Better Start

About A Better Start

A Better Start is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK. Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language and communication.

The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. It is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier

The National Children’s Bureau is coordinating an ambitious programme of shared learning for A Better Start, disseminating the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

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