TIMES have been tough for everyone during the pandemic, but for lone parents and families struggling with isolation, lost income and less than stable home situations, it has been particularly difficult.
DUP councillor Paul Dunlop and former deputy Mayor Noreen McClelland of the SDLP were two public representatives who were to the forefront of assisting those in need at the height of the crisis.
Following the success of the ‘Baby Bank’ in Newtownabbey and Glengormley, they approached Home-Start Antrim Scheme’s Sharon Caldwell to see if she could help.
The Baby Bank aims to help, encourage and support those struggling with the practical issues of having a new baby or toddler by providing nappies and clothes, toiletries and other equipment.
After liasing with Chris Boucher, who runs the existing scheme in the borough, and with the input of Castle Mall Manager Pamela Minford and other agencies such as Womens’ Aid and Surestart, it was felt that there was a need in the community which needed to be addressed.
Fionnuala O'Donnell from the Antrim Food Bank was also helpful in offering advice and support.
It was agreed that Home-Start would take charge of an initial six-month pilot in Antrim town, and after securing a grant from the council, the scheme is now up and running in Castle Mall.
Now everything from high chairs to wet wipes, is provided by the community and redistributed to families in need by a team of dedicated volunteers.
The community project was established to relieve poverty, redistribute quality resources and reduce parental stress and improve the lives of children.
Pamela Minford said: “The last year has been very tough for lots of reasons and I have seen a great sense of community being built within our Town and the need to look out for each other.
“The team at Home-Start have been very proactive and adapted their services to fit with the moving needs of their families and community around them.
“Antrim Town is very much a community space and Castle Mall sits at the heart of this.”
Home-Start is a voluntary, home-visiting scheme supporting parents with at least one child under five, families suffering high levels of social isolation and loneliness with little or no family support.
The organisation trains parent volunteers to provide support in the home where problems may exist and where confidentiality can be maintained.
Before the pandemic, there were three strands to the service - home visits, family morning groups and courses.
The local organisation provided three family morning groups in Antrim, Toomebridge and Ballyclare and help families in those areas, as well as Randalstown, Crumlin and Parkgate.
In the family groups, parents and children were able to come along and meet other families.
Children got the chance to play, learn and have fun with other children and with different books and toys, while parents were able to meet and talk to other parents – and many discover they are going through the same kinds of experiences and feel less alone.
Volunteers can help with practical tasks, offer advice, or support a family through emotional issues.
The free service is funded via a number of organisations, including the Northern Trust, council, Children in Need, DSD, Tesco and Asda, the Enkalon Foundation, South Antrim Community Network, Antrim Lions, Henderson Group and the Association of Independent Volunteer Centres.
Home Start in Antrim opened its doors on October 1 1990 in a Housing Executive property on the Greystone estate before moving to Market Square.
In almost 30 years, Home-Start in the town has supported over 1,400 families.
However the pandemic has changed things significantly.
“Covid brought us to a place where so much of what we did was not possible,” explained Sharon.
“The groups have not taken place since March 2020.
“Volunteers were not able to do visits. Many of our volunteers are older and during the pandemic could not be put at risk.
“We kept up the contact through phone and online and we were able to deliver various courses digitally.
“It was important to make sure that everyone felt valued and supported during this difficult time and that our clients knew we were always available.
“We were able to do a lot of doorstep drops of equipment and volunteers are now allowed to go back out and door outdoors or garden visits.
“Isolation was a big problem for a lot of our clients, particularly lone parents and we delivered where we could.
“Through the pandemic, a lot of parents had been on zero hours contracts and all of a sudden, their income was gone.”
In terms of the Baby Bank, there are ten volunteers and will be open on Thursdays from 10am to 3pm for donations and collections.
There are also a number of donation bins in the centre.
Referrals can be made by friends and families, medical professionals, social services, health visitors or people can refer themselves.
Local schools, nurseries, playgroups and day care facilities can also signpost families to the service.
So far, around 13 families have been assisted.
“No one can predict what will happen in the future and people can fall on hard times in the blink of an eye,” said Sharon.
“Even when someone makes poor choices, that is never the fault of a child and we will assist anyone who needs help.
“A lady rang me and asked for help and that was so courageous, it is a big step to admit you are struggling and I am pleased that she felt that she could do that. We are here for whoever needs us.”
Sharon is full of praise to the people of Antrim for their generosity and donations.
“The support we have received so far has been amazing,” she said.
“There are a group of ladies who crocheted newborn clothes over lockdown, people have donated cash to buy items, at the moment what we need are toiletries for mum and baby.”
Sharon, who lives outside Templepatrick, previously worked for a family support service in North Belfast and is always on the lookout for more volunteers.
All accreditation and training is looked after by Home-Start.
“It’s an ideal role for people who’s own families are older, perhaps someone who is retired or is thinking about early retirement,” she said.
“Former teachers and nurses often fit into the role very well, but all are welcome.
“Some of these volunteers form long and lasting friendships with the families they have assisted.
“It’s all about parents supporting other parents.
“All parents struggle sometimes, and that’s why we are here to offer support, guidance, and a listening ear.
“We also work a lot on teaching families how to budget and make sure that their money lasts from one month to the next.
“The right interventions can be transformative and life-changing and make a real difference in the lives of these families.”