Kelly Bagnall is Spurgeons’ Senior Manager in the Birmingham Forward Steps partnership, a city wide integrated early years, health and wellbeing service for families with babies and children under five. Ria Evans is the Spurgeons Together for Families worker who connects Tame Valley Children’s Centre and the local community. They share some brief insights into some of the challenges children and families have faced during the pandemic, and what solutions they have helped to develop.
The rise of wraparound support and community spirit
Kelly says, “During Covid, there’s been a real shift towards different organisations in a community connecting with each other and working together to help families in need. Birmingham Forward Steps and the Early Help Locality teams are co-ordinating this response so that there is equity of access for children and their families.
“We have secured small grants to give out to families facing financial hardship so they can buy food, heating, school uniforms and other essentials. These aren’t just available to the families we already serve through Spurgeons Children’s Centres – there’s a new process in place via the Early Help Locality offer, so that schools and other local organisations can connect us to any children, young people and families they come across who are in need.
“Often parents can be reluctant to ask for help for food and essential items because of the stigma that is perceived by this. But they do tend to trust Children’s Centres. We can reassure them that there’s no shame in asking for help, especially at the moment, and that it doesn’t mean they’re a bad parent. So we’re a good first contact point for the support they need.
“We don’t just give them a food parcel and send them on their way. We also take time to chat with them and find out what the underlying issues are, because we want to support the family in order to support the child. Maybe a parent has lost a job, a relationship has broken down, there might be domestic abuse involved. Depending on what those issues are, we can assist, or we can signpost to other organisations – it’s about enabling families to know where to go for help and ensuring they get it.”
Parenting 24/7 – out with TV, in with activities
Ria would normally work out of Tame Valley Children’s Centre, but during the pandemic it has been closed to public access. She says her existing community contacts have been invaluable during this time. “Right from the first lockdown, we saw such a blossoming of community spirit and sense of connection. I’ve worked for some time with a local community group called Together We Can. They’re well known and trusted in the area. We would really have struggled to get support to families without their considerable help. And so many families did need so much support!
“Before the pandemic, parents would normally have only taken part in creative activities with their children at the Children’s Centre – at home, some parents would rely on putting their child in front of the TV. But you can’t do that all day, every day, for months!
“So with the support of Together We Can, we produced activity packs and delivered them door to door. One pack had a gardening theme – we included seeds, plant pots and soil so they could grow plants in gardens, on a windowsill or balcony.
Families were so excited – some of them had never grown anything together before! “We also set up a scavenger trail in the local bluebell woods so families could visit on their daily exercise – most parents had never been there. And we supported two mums to put on a Halloween trail. A committee of local residents developed out of that – they have gone on to put on other local family events.
“Naturally we hope that some parents will carry on regularly doing activities at home with their children after restrictions end.
“Some parents found it was a bit outside of their comfort zone, but we tried to make it easy for them. Many of them have had lovely experiences, strengthened the bond with their children and created memories to treasure forever.”
Personal contact – essential, not a luxury
During the pandemic, where in-person meeting was no longer possible, the go-to solution was to go online. However, Ria says she has realised how much parents value the personal connection and how important it is.
She says, “Not all parents have the internet, or enough data, or their children may be using the family’s only computer for schoolwork. Some parents don’t have the confidence to turn up to a Zoom or Microsoft Teams session online – or even to a community event. There might be a language barrier, they might not know how to use the technology properly, they might worry about going to a community event where they may not know anyone.
“But if I visit on the doorstep, or phone them, I can listen to their concerns, reassure and support them. I can connect them with other parents who might be going to a local event so they can chat first. That few minutes of faceto-face contact makes such a difference to some of our most vulnerable families.”
We hope of course that the worst of the pandemic, and restrictions, are over. But whatever the future brings, you can be sure that Spurgeons will be ready, willing and able to continue supporting vulnerable children in communities in Birmingham and wherever we work.
About Spurgeons Children’s Centre Services in Birmingham:
Spurgeons Children’s Charity delivers Children’s Centre services in four Birmingham districts under the Birmingham Forward Steps Partnership. Spurgeons children’s centres are places where parents of children aged 0–5 years can share the challenges and joys of parenthood. The centres offer a range of activities and support services to help you with all aspects of parenting, helping you make sure your child gets the best start in life.
To learn more about our work in Birmingham, click here.