IT’S the Christmas party season and seven-month-old Ollie Trotter is wearing his Santa’s Little Helper elf outfit while Layla Gibson, one month younger, in her pink tutu, is giggling and grinning from ear to ear, enjoying the fun at the Barnardo’s Scotland You First party.
Their mothers, Kelly Docherty, 22, and Nicole McGuff, 21, are two of the first-time parents taking part in the award-winning You First programme at Newbattle, Midlothian, aimed at encouraging new parents to get the best out of their children’s early years and give them the future they deserve.
This year, Scotland on Sunday’s Christmas Appeal is supporting the work of Barnardo’s Scotland – including You First – which aims to give children and young people a more secure future. To keep running its 122 projects, which help more than 14,500 children, the charity needs to raise £3 million a year. Every donation can make a huge difference.
You First is a project designed to help young mothers in a country which has a higher rate of teenage pregnancies than most other western European nations. Many of the young mums who attend You First have said they feel upset and angry at the way they are portrayed in the downmarket press as “feckless” and unwilling to help themselves.
Kelly said: “Just because we’re young mums doesn’t mean we’re bad mums. We get a lot of grief about having babies when we’re young.
“There’s this view that we’re all out to get houses and benefits, which is not true at all.”
Barnardo’s Scotland’s 20-week You First programme, which won the 2011 Innovation Care Accolade sponsored by the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services, is for new parents aged 21 and under with a baby under one year old.
Groups of up to eight mothers and fathers can attend the course to share a range of useful parenting skills. These include learning the importance of playing with and reading to very young babies, meal planning, health and nutrition, and budgeting and advice on opening bank accounts.
Participants live in the most deprived areas of Scotland and may have been in care at one stage in their young lives.
Being innovative is something Barnardo’s Scotland prides itself on and being aware that young parents can be a difficult group to reach, it decided to adopt a novel approach and use the incentive of a direct cash grant for those taking part. The £320 grant is provided by the Scottish Government and the Inspiring Scotland fund.
The approach has been successful in many parts of the world including South America and New York where it was championed by the city’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
Piloted by the charity in Midlothian, East Lothian and West Lothian in 2009, the programme, backed by the Scottish Government and health boards, has been expanded into eight board areas – Inverclyde and Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire, Forth Valley, Ayrshire and Arran, Tayside and Grampian and Highland.
Kelly, who is due to return part-time to her job at a pizza factory next year, said one of the things she had enjoyed the most was the chance to meet others with new babies.
“It’s been brilliant, I’ve really enjoyed it, meeting other mums and sharing views,” she said. “It’s given me good ideas about things like the sort of foods to make at home. I can now make home-made soup and know how to blend fruits like mangos and apple and freeze them, which are better for Ollie and a lot cheaper than buying jars of baby food.”
Ollie’s father, Bremner, had opened a Rainbow Account for their son, said Kelly who added that the course’s budgeting advice was a great help.
Nicole, who is set to return to her job in the restaurant at Dobbies Garden Centre in Dalkeith next month, said that the group was friendly and made everyone feel welcome.
“When you have a baby you get to know the health visitors but this group is more for us and we feel we can talk about anything to the people who run the course,” she said.
Nicole added that she and Layla’s father, Kevin Gibson, were saving money with all the advice they’d had received.
Leonee Moorhead, project co-ordinator for You First National, said: “My biggest passion is getting children and parents enjoying their lives together.
“I remember being in a meeting with some health visitors and one was saying we shouldn’t be paying people to attend. But if you are seeing things from a very middle-class perspective where you are cosy and warm and all the bills are paid it can be difficult to understand that life is not like that for every one.”
Martin Crew, director of Barnardo’s Scotland, said: “We’re very proud our You First programme offers support to parents and babies across Scotland. The first years are the most important of a child’s life and it is vital we all work together to give young parents the support they need.
“The average age of mothers is now almost 30 and it is easy to forget just how self-conscious this can make young mothers feel. Barnardo’s believes young parents want to do the best they can for their children – they just need to be given the support to do it.”
For more information on You First call 0131 334 9893.