WITHIN seconds of being told their newborn son wasn’t going to make it, Natalie Herd and Brady Smith’s tears turned to delight as the little scrap of humanity breathed for himself.
Their baby’s problems began when his brain was starved of oxygen in the womb and it took medical staff a long time to resuscitate him, at which stage he was put into a suit to freeze his body to prevent any more damage.
After a few days, staff took him off the ventilator that was breathing for him, and Natalie says: “At first he wasn’t breathing and the doctors told us he wasn’t going to make it. We were crying and then he breathed. It was like we lost our child and a few seconds later he just breathed and kept going.”
Those early problems left Frankie (now two-and-three-quarters) with Cerebral Palsy, which causes problems with movement and eating, so he has to be tube-fed into his stomach and has to use equipment such as a standing frame, posture chair and wheelchair buggy to help him move, as well as needing a lot of medication and physiotherapy.
For parents Natalie and Brady, who live in Trinity Close, Crowland, with their other child, 18-month-old Lottie, it was a difficult time.
It became harder for Natalie a few months later when Brady went to college – he has since completed his course and is due to start working for the local fire service.
It was at that point that Natalie’s health visitor referred her to Home-Start South Holland, an independent family support charity which receives support from the national Home-Start organisation.
Home-Start volunteer Janet – the organisation uses only first names for them – started visiting regularly to help get Frankie bathed and dressed and help with physio and appointments.
She’s been visiting the family for a couple of years now and Natalie says: “She’s amazing, she really is. She supports Frankie with his extra needs and she has a disabled child herself so she has experienced so much, and she’s here for our good days and our bad days.”
Janet is one of 30 volunteers who last year supported 61 families – involving 170 children – by providing an extra pair of hands, a listening ear and friendly support.
“Parenting is hard work without any added pressures and stresses that parents face,” said Mary Hutson, senior co-ordinator of Home-Start South Holland, which works out of Holbeach St Marks community building but covers the whole district.
“We are a family support charity and we offer support to any family with at least one child under the age of five with a need for additional support. Primarily it is befriending support and it is parents supporting parents because the key criteria for the volunteers we recruit is that they have parenting experience.”
Practical and emotional support is offered to families of all kinds who are identified as needing it by health visitors or other professionals and even by the families themselves. It can range from helping a mum with newborn twins, assisting families with mental health issues or a disabled child, to helping victims of domestic abuse or those suffering because of isolation.
Mary says the scheme is confidential although it liaises with the statutory services and works with families in an “open and honest way” where possible. It also offers group support, with referral-only family groups meeting in the Weston and Gedney areas.
She says: “The key to our success is the fact that we offer support in a non-judgmental way. It’s providing a listening ear, someone to off-load to. It’s not that we can go and solve problems, but if a parent is able to sound out what’s going on sometimes that helps to resolve it and find the solution. We are not cleaners or baby sitters, but it could be supporting parents where they haven’t acquired those parenting skills, and being a role model.”
Potential volunteers receive 40 hours’ training, much of that aimed at bringing out the skills and experience they already have as parents and, once trained, Mary and her two part-time workers match volunteers with particular strengths and skills with the right family. The relationship is monitored and reviewed to ensure the volunteer is making the difference the family needs.
As Mary says: “It’s about being a good enough parent and a role model can be very powerful, showing good practice and giving praise and encouragement, because as much as children need it, so do parents.”
Volunteers might support for three to six months or longer, as in the case of Janet and Natalie, and Natalie admits they have become close in that time.
She said: “Home-Start do a regular assessment and obviously we have done so well they think we don’t need her any more. Frankie is going to a reception creche at the Garth School two mornings a week and hopefully when he turns three that will go up, but I am very sad at the thought of losing Janet.”
Janet says she has found volunteering worthwhile and life-enhancing. She says: “I have teenage children now but when they were little I appreciated any help I had so I just hope I can pass that help along. I would encourage other people to become volunteers.”
l If you are interested in finding out more or becoming a trustee of the charity, Home-Start South Holland is holding its annual general meeting at Weston Village Hall on September 17 (5pm) and it’s open to anyone.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or telephone 01406 701720.