Home-Start is a UK wide network of more than 200 local, independent groups that support families with young children and facing challenges like isolation, bereavement and postnatal depression.
Knowledge and Learning Manager Zoë Anderson speaks to Home-Start Wandsworth coordinators Carey Davies and Sarah Maher and volunteer Lisa Quarrey about the charity's work in south London, and using art and creativity as a vital way of boosting mood and confidence during lockdown – for parents as well as children.
Practical and emotional support for mums and babies
Home-Start Wandsworth offers befriending, group activities at its Family Hubs and a 'Bump to Baby' home visiting service that supports mums through pregnancy, birth and beyond. It matches each family with a volunteer, offering a mix of practical and emotional support.
Almost all the volunteers are themselves parents, able to offer experience and peer support. They receive nine days' training, including mental health awareness, safeguarding, and working with special needs and disabilities. The National Lottery Community Fund has supported Home-Start Wandsworth since 2011, including a grant of £69,129 to support Covid-19 response.
"We don't take over, and say, 'go and have your bath, I'll be the babysitter,'" Family Hubs Coordinator Carey explains. "It's more about working alongside families, suggesting things that might make them and the baby happier. It could be that they don't know where the children’s centres are, or they would like some help with housing or financial worries."
It can change every week, agrees volunteer Lisa. Before the pandemic, she was matched as a volunteer with a new mum, who had left her abusive partner. "She'd recently been homeless and in temporary accommodation. There were lots of things to sort out as her benefits weren't being paid properly. We had lots of trips to council offices, to the Citizen's Advice Bureau. I think she felt overwhelmed with the list of things she had to do, with a newborn baby, whilst moving into new accommodation." These included frequent hospital appointments, treatment for anxiety, depression and an eating disorder.
With so much to do, having a volunteer's support meant more time and space to focus. "You want to be able to deal with the problem in front of you, and that can be difficult when you're also looking after a baby," Lisa explains.
"Listening is a really big thing," says Bump to Baby Coordinator Sarah. "Initially, volunteers will often think – 'Listening – I feel I'm not doing much!' But it's so important. How often do we have someone who's prepared to just sit and listen, let us chat?" It's something the families really value, regularly highlighted in feedback: "They'll often say, 'I love the fact my volunteer didn't judge me, I felt I could say anything to her.'"
'Zooming' through lockdown
Most of the charity's work is face to face - from the tailored support that often means, "work with a family for six months to a year," to groups and activities that help to reduce loneliness and social isolation over a chat and a coffee. Lockdown inevitably meant exploring what could be switched to remote support.
Carey took her groups on Zoom, with three weekly meetings: "I did the creative group, a general hub group that anyone can join, and a bump to baby one. Weirdly, particularly for the first three months, there was almost more attendance than in real life! Whether because they don't have to get there on public transport, maybe it's easier just to come in on your Zoom? But I've had wonderful attendance."
For Carey, the group's shared history is a big part of its success.
That group is very comfortable with each other, I think because I built that relationship before lockdown. We've talked about everything – Black Lives Matter, not being able to sleep, anxiety about Covid, pelvic floor, everything!Carey Davies
The move online brought new opportunities. Sarah suggested several Home-Start parents might be interested in a Zoom baby group, run by an expert postnatal depression counsellor. One mum became upset during the session, but when Sarah got in touch to check how she was, she said, "'I'd just had that lightbulb moment.'" Listening to the counsellor, she felt that "'Everything she said just was as I'd been feeling. Now I know I’m not alone.'" She went on attending the group, even after she moved out of London to stay with family. "She can keep going with the group via Zoom. She's delighted, she feels it's helped her turn a corner."
For volunteers like Lisa who were used to offering one to one support, "We could still have regular FaceTime conversations, video calls." Families knew that support was still there, "at the end of the phone, they can ring or text pretty well any time," explains Sarah. "With most of our families, there was already a very good relationship before lockdown, so that was a good basis to continue support."
Sarah has also matched a couple of new volunteers to families who were referred early in lockdown, with great success. Parents coming to Home-Start often didn't want to worry their own family by talking about their struggles, but with volunteers, "there's not the emotional baggage there might be with family members, [where] they haven't wanted to offload everything onto them."
At the same time, Sarah acknowledges, practical support has been more of a challenge. "Some of our referrals come from mums who are struggling with their mental health, so that's something we've been able to maintain. But we have some with twins, they want another pair of hands – that's been harder."
They've responded with tangible, practical advice and signposted to foodbanks, to health professionals and local agencies, and to organisations such as Little Village, another National Lottery-funded charity which supplies donated baby clothes, toys and equipment, including nappies and wipes. "They only accept stuff that looks virtually new. If it's prams, pushchairs, cots, they clean everything down, make sure it's working properly. With cots, they always supply brand new mattresses."
For Sarah, making food or Little Village deliveries was a good way to catch up with families, particularly those who hadn't joined the Zoom meetings. "If they don’t have a laptop, or they're trying to access the Zoom group by phone – it can be temperamental and depends on their internet."
More than that, "You can get a lot out of seeing someone, maybe if their child's with them on the doorstep. How they appear, how they hold themselves – some of those nuances are lost over the phone. It depends: some people like speaking on the phone, maybe they can open up a bit more that way. But if someone's feeling low, you can probably assess that more when you're seeing them."
Families have experienced lockdown in different ways. Sarah found that some parents, "particularly if they've had their partner working from home, they've felt they've had more family time. They've liked not worrying about what's on social media and feeling inadequate, a few have said that. They're not expected to be rushing out with the children the entire time – everything's been a bit calmer."
For others, it has been very hard, especially where partners have lost work, "there’s been a lot of stresses building up within the family. It's hard for them to know who to talk to, in that situation. If they're talking from home, the partner might be aware, so it's been hard sometimes to have that confidentiality."
Many have been fearful. The mum Lisa supports didn't leave the house during lockdown: "She was too anxious to go out - and if she'd been ill, she's the only person to look after the baby, so she really was cautious." "A few of our mums have been too frightened even to go on the daily walk," Sarah confirms. "They just haven't stepped out of their doors."
Connecting through crayons, sellotape and stickers
With this level of isolation, Home-Start's Zoom groups and the activity packs it delivers have been hugely welcome. "We made these creative kits," Carey explains. "Crayons and glue and sellotape and stickers, paper, card, some creative ideas – printouts saying 'you can make this with the equipment we've given you'. Adult colouring, for mindfulness, and children's reading books." They were careful to include all the necessary equipment: not just colouring books, but coloured pens too.
"The feedback has been amazing: 'I feel cared for, I feel part of a family.' It was all personally done – it wasn’t like we bought a pack, we put individual things in. It's done really well, they've all sent pictures of things their kids made, it was so lovely."
Sarah wants to build on the success of the creative kits. "The way the craft packs were received, delivering books for the children – I think that's an important part of our work, that maybe we hadn't focused on as much in the past. It's really emphasised what a lot of mums get out of that, whether they have any experience of arts and crafts. Most people are receptive to having a go, and are surprised at what they get out of it."
There's been the same enthusiasm about Carey's creative group. After moving to Zoom at the start of lockdown, it's changed again, now with most activity in the group's WhatsApp chat. "Some people will say, 'Oh no, I don't do anything creative,'" says Carey, but afterwards they're proud, "they'll say, 'I made that!'" "One girl shares what she's making, everyone comments, other people ask, 'Do you have an idea how I could do this?' It’s quite cosy, acknowledging everyone's successes."
This can be a powerful way to build connections. "One girl has done this embroidery on her postnatal depression. It's absolutely stunning – we've shared it on our Instagram. She opened up, said, 'This what I’ve been through, and I've embroidered it all.' Another mum then said, 'I've had the same experience'. Just through embroidery! I'm really proud of that, how it's brought those conversations.
"I found when we weren't in lockdown, when we were sat around tables sewing, it was a great way to chat. People's inhibitions are down, because you're not looking at each other, and you're just chatting."
Taking baby steps out of lockdown
Responses have changed over the course of the pandemic, particularly when it comes to working online. After three months of enthusiasm, Zoom attendances began to drop. "I think a lot of people are fed up with Zoom," admits Carey, "including myself. So it has calmed down." In a changing situation, solutions have to keep evolving. Sometimes the conversation moved to other platforms, such as the craft group's WhatsApp, but they’re keen to also reinstate safe face-to-face options too.
As lockdown measures eased, Home-Start began trialling group buggy walks. "Obviously we have to be careful of social distancing," Carey adds. For Lisa, the change in restrictions means that she can again meet up with the mother she supports. "It's taken about six weeks to get her out the front door. Just the idea of going outside… I think she's seeing more pandemic news through social media and television, and didn't realise it wasn't going to be quite as bad when she stepped out the house.
"When you’ve been locked away for so long, integrating yourself back into society feels quite strange, especially if you're suffering from depression and anxiety."
It's been a slow process, building up carefully:
A ten minute walk, a 20 minute walk. Last Wednesday, we went to the park together and took the baby. It's developing all the time.Lisa Quarrey
Carey Davis, Sarah Maher and Lisa Quarrey and spoke to Zoë Anderson on 06, 08 and 31 July 2020. This page was last updated: 7 August 2020.