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Families Matter - Guildford

Families Matter is a community project that helps local families who are often quite isolated by carefully matching them to a volunteer befriender who can come alongside and help them in a variety of practical ways. Although Guildford is a relatively affluent area, it does contain areas of deprivation, especially in the north of the borough, which is where Families Matter operates.

Origins

When a charity closed a few years ago, some funds became available in the Guildford Diocese to work with families. Various churches made separate bids to secure funds, but it made sense to have an ecumenical project and work together. In thinking through a potential project, a steering group was formed with the churches that had put in bids, the Department for Social Responsibility (DSR), Guildford Diocese, the local Sure Start Children’s Centre and a local charity organisation, Guildford Action for Families (GAF). GAF runs community drop-in sessions and gives parents/carers practical advice and support with problems that they might face in bringing up their children. These representatives confirmed the view of people in the churches that some families’ needs were not being fully met. Some agencies were not reaching the neediest families or, where they were, they were not giving sufficiently holistic or intensive help. As a result, a post of Co-ordinator was advertised and filled and Families Matter was launched in March 2009.

How Families Matter works

The project’s aim is to support vulnerable or isolated local families with children up to eighteen years old. The chosen means of supporting them is through befriending. Families are referred by a variety of agencies, such as health visitors, school workers, GAF and the Children’s Centre. Although the local social services are interested in the work, they are less likely to make referrals and, on the whole, Families Matter can be more effective working with families before they are in any sort of crisis need requiring social service intervention.

Once referred, the first step is for the Co-ordinator to visit. Sometimes she is accompanied by the person who has made the referral but, in any case, she goes through a checklist about the family with whoever has referred them to get a broad picture of their circumstances and needs. In these initial visits, she carries out a risk assessment prior to involving the volunteer befriender and she may make several visits to gain sufficient understanding to be able to introduce the most suitable befriender.

The families referred may have any of a range of problems such as debt, domestic abuse and parenting. Often when they are referred, it is with the message “this is what they need”. However, Families Matter starts from what the families themselves say: what is their immediate felt need? Once the relationship is established, a wider range of problems or their underlying causes may emerge.

Befrienders give many sorts of help depending upon the families’ needs. Their role goes much further than befriending. It may be helping them to access local facilities such as toddler groups, youth groups and the Children’s Centre. It might be giving moral support or simply spending time with them and chatting. It might be putting them in touch with other sorts of help. For example, Families Matter has links with Besom, a cross-church initiative in Guildford that also recognises that there are many who are vulnerable and in need through situations such as isolation, poverty, ill health, homelessness and domestic violence. Besom enables people to make a difference through practical work such as gardening, decorating and DIY and through giving good quality items, such as furniture, white goods, clothes, kitchen equipment and other household items.

Befrienders will usually see a family every week or two weeks, spending more time with them at the start of the relationship, and they continue to work with them for two years. Part of the value of befriending is its long term nature and some befrienders maintain the friendship even after the formal role has finished. Befrienders, too, will quite often introduce their families to other friends who can become a wider support network.

A critical dimension of the scheme is matching befrienders with the families. In part this is a matter of getting the ‘chemistry’ right, but it is also important to use volunteers who live in the same locality and know about the local community. If they come from more geographically and socially distant areas, the ‘reality gap’ can be too great.

Recruitment of volunteers

Befrienders have been recruited – through word of mouth and legwork – from local churches: Church of England, a joint Anglican/shared, Elim Pentecostal, Baptist and more recently Roman Catholic. In speaking about the work to churches, the Co-ordinator will often take an existing volunteer with her so that they can share their experience. Befrienders do not have to have any specific professional experience or qualifications, but some bring relevant experience, either because they have worked with a similar cross section of people in a different capacity, for example, as teacher or nursery nurse, or because they have had some personal experience of the problems the clients are encountering. The key qualification is to have a real passion for helping others. People putting themselves forward have to be assessed in terms of their suitability and have to have CRB checks. The age range is quite wide. They cannot be too young, though some younger people can give other sorts of volunteering help. At the other end of the age range, people over 80 years old are precluded because they would not be covered by insurance.

The volunteers are given a handbook containing relevant information. They receive training in the following areas:

· Safeguarding children and vulnerable adults;
· Boundaries;
· Confidentiality;
· Personal Safety;
· Domestic Abuse.

They also have talks from the local Children’s Centre and GAF on their role and what they provide for families.

The organisation

Families Matter is run by the Diocese of Guildford and the part-time Co-ordinator is managed by the Diocesan Social Responsibility Officer. There is a steering group that meets monthly with members drawn from the different churches that have several members participating in the project.

Developing activities

Over the last two years, Families Matter has grown in terms of the number of churches involved. The steering group is also looking now at whether it would be valuable to extend its activities into group work. At present, ideas are still at an early stage of formulation, but external developments suggest potential needs:

· As schools no longer have money ring-fenced for holiday clubs for their children, could churches help to fill the gap?

· The government now wants single mothers to go to work once their last child is at school. Many feel unfitted for work, depressed at the prospect and anxious about their abilities. One possibility would be to set up groups in a couple of churches with a support worker to provide information on, and discuss different aspects of seeking, obtaining and retaining employment.

Resources

In addition to the initial funds from the charity that closed, funding for Families Matter has come from the Bishop of Guildford’s Foundation and donations from churches. Churches also give in-kind contributions through allowing the free use of their premises. The Children’s Centre also gives the Co-ordinator free desk space.

However, funding is a constant issue. At present, the project has reserves for about six months. Various funding applications are planned.

The non-financial support from local churches and, especially from the DSR, is vital.

Costing the contribution of volunteers

In addition to the time given by the members of the steering group in meetings and providing training, there are about 15 volunteers who each give an average of 2/3 hours per week. Calculated on the basis of the minimum wage, this amounts to £180 per week, though the professional rates for the work would be much higher.

Outcomes

Families Matter has a questionnaire, which is first completed when the family is first referred and then revisited six monthly afterwards.[1] What such monitoring shows is that because families become more confident and are less isolated, they can manage their own lives more competently and often go on to support others.

An outside indication that the project is seen as effective is that Families Matter has been asked to extend to other parts of Guildford. This has so far been resisted because of lack of capacity.

Success factors

· Flexibility: Families Matter can cross barriers that other agencies with more limited remits cannot and it can deliver help that is more personal to the specific family; for example, helping with school uniforms or when the house needs painting. Sometimes this is through very spontaneous responses from local churches, such as having a ‘whip-round’ for a mother whose daughter needed very costly built-up shoes, thus providing a very rapid solution to what could otherwise have become a much more protracted problem.

· Much of the effectiveness of the project depends upon the care and skill required to match befrienders appropriately with families.

· Raising awareness and getting churches on-side is important not least because churches have a real sense of the importance of family life and a vision of what ‘community’ can mean that is often lacking in wider society.

· Supporting the volunteers and integrating them into the wider project is a means of showing their work is valued. One way of doing this is bringing them together every few months socially and for prayer. This helps them not only to get to know one another, but also to gain better mutual understanding of their respective churches.

· In line managing the Co-ordinator, the SRO treats her as one of his team which gives her access to others’ expertise and the wider support that the Diocesan ‘family’ can offer.

Barriers

Funding is a perpetual problem. More volunteers are also needed especially as some step down from the programme after two years because they are continuing to keep contact informally with their families. Another danger is the possibility of losing focus because there are so many directions that the project could take.

Challenges and opportunities

Funding will continue to be a major challenge. It is evident that the level of need is growing partly because of the cuts faced by statutory agencies. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. At the same time, people in churches, as in the rest of the voluntary sector, are becoming more wary of, or rather cynical about, the term ‘Big Society’ because it seems to amount to them being given more and more responsibilities in the face of dwindling resources.

Jane Voake

[1] Some of the indicators included are comparable with those in the Department for Education’s ‘Family Savings Calculator’. This is a tool to help local authorities to quantify the cost benefits of a family with multiple problems undergoing and successfully completing an intensive intervention under the headings of: Crime/anti-social behaviour; Drug and alcohol services; Education/employment; Health care; Housing; Social care.