Struggling mums should know they are not alone

That old community spirit is being revived, says Paul Carberry.
Leading charity, Action for Children Scotland. Picture: Ian GeorgesonLeading charity, Action for Children Scotland. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Leading charity, Action for Children Scotland. Picture: Ian Georgeson

I grew up in a tenement in the shipbuilding area of Glasgow in the 1960s and ’70s and I remember feeling that famous sense of community that is still talked about today. People looked out for the families in their close and on their street; mothers had strong ties with other mothers, lending a hand and giving friendly advice when needed.

I think this is something our society has lost in recent years, and it is a loss. People don’t know their neighbours, and they don’t realise that they might need a bit of extra help. Through my work with Action for Children Scotland I meet families who are facing huge challenges, and I often think that although professional services play a necessary role, some practical and moral support at an earlier stage really would have helped.

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Action for Children Scotland’s new Family Support Volunteer Project aims to reignite community ties by giving mums and dads a platform to share their knowledge with vulnerable families in their community. Launched in Inverclyde and West Dunbartonshire earlier this year, we already have 26 volunteers, with 52 vulnerable children and parents benefiting from the fact that they have been there, done that, and can share their experience.

The project sits well with the aim of the Scottish Government’s Early Years Taskforce to develop community assets; this is all about identifying and building on existing strengths within communities. I passionately believe that many “ordinary” people have the skills, expertise and – importantly – desire to make a real difference in their local area. Charities like Action for Children Scotland can play a significant role in facilitating this and mobilising communities – but really it’s about empowering people who are more than capable of helping themselves.

Vicky, from Greenock, began volunteering with us after seeing a poster at her son’s nursery. The 30-year-old mum of three recalls how much she struggled when her boys were younger; particularly when they went through a phase of biting each other. She tells me that she was too proud to ask for help, and that this was a mistake. Vicky became a volunteer because she wants other mums to realise that they’re not alone.

Vicky thinks the project works so well because the families trust her, they don’t feel judged – she is simply seen as a local mum who wants to help.

We provide a seven-week training programme to help our volunteers develop and build on their existing skills, before matching them with a family. These families are facing everyday challenges which can seem insurmountable – parents might feel unable to manage behaviour, there might be post-natal depression, or the children might be having difficulty learning to read and write. Our volunteers make weekly visits to their home, using games and a range of activities to help parents strengthen attachment, encourage play and learning, and gain confidence in their own parenting skills.

A good example of this is a large family who had never been to the park together. The mum confided in our volunteer that she felt unable to plan the trip and to keep her children safe when they were out of the house. Our volunteer drew on her own experience to help mum plan every stage – from putting on coats, to teaching the children to cross a busy road, to making sure they understood that when she said it is time to go home, it is time to go home. Getting out and enjoying the fresh air has made a big difference to the children, and knowing that she has the ability to organise the trip has made an even bigger difference to mum.

Last week three volunteers spoke about the Family Support Volunteer Project at an early years collaborative learning session held by Scottish Government. They were nervous about addressing 800 professionals, experts from the public and third sectors – but also self-assured and full of pride. This is because they know their experience counts, and they make a real difference to the families they support. The success of the project just shows that mum and dad really do know best.

• Paul Carberry is director of service development at Action for Children Scotland and member of Scotland’s Early Years Taskforce