Partner: Ekaya Housing Association
Location: Lambeth, South London
Date: 23rd November 2015 – 11th January 2016
Lead Artist Helen Maier tells the story of working with seven families living with Ekaya Housing organisation. Ekaya provides temporary and permanent housing and support services to young parents and their children.
“Wow!” A three-year-old boy says looking up at the two large cardboard boxes I’m holding. I arrange the cardboard into a square den shape and start cutting windows and doors. With each cut I make the little boy says “Wow!” As soon as I step back he runs inside. “Shut the door”, he says as he closes the two edges of the cardboard together.
Another little boy, aged one, crawls in to join him. “Are you having fun in there?” says his mum smiling as he grins up at her. We’re in the middle of a brightly lit communal room with a kitchen along one wall and some sofas along the other. Busu and Noah watch from the sofa. Harry (two years) sits on Busu’s lap. “Go play in the den”, says Busu. Harry shakes his head, his dark brown hair flopping from side to side.
A new family walks into the room. “Go and play in the den” the young mum gestures to her daughter (two years), holding a sleeping baby in her other arm. The little girl slowly walks towards the cardboard den. She stands outside the door, looking at the two boys playing inside. Step by step she moves closer and closer. Eventually, after two minutes, she’s inside.
“Let’s make some doorbells”, says my colleague Sally. She rolls a round bell to Harry and his mum and dad still sat on the sofa. They sit on the floor, take a pipe cleaner and thread it through the hole in the bell. Harry leaves his parents and walks towards the den doorbell in hand.
The following week, I’m sitting on the floor of the bright, warm, communal room, dressed in a stripy t-shirt and blue sailor trousers – I’m the Toilet Training Sailor. Five young mums sit around me making toilet roll telescopes with their small children. Harry is sticking sparkly stickers on a toilet roll my colleague Charlotte is holding while Busu watches.
“Polly needs a wee”, I say wiggling my parrot puppet in one hand. “We need to find Potty Island as fast as we can!”
We put on the toilet training sailor song: ”Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, woo”, I sing.
Some of the children and parents get up and start wiggling along with me. Harry grabs onto his mum’s legs, gripping fistfuls of her jeans. She tries to wiggle with him. He starts to scream so she picks him up quickly and he buries his face in her shoulder.
At the end of the session my colleague Sally is on the sofa talking to Busu, Harry is laying on top of her kicking his arms and legs around. He sits up and hits his mum and pulls on her. Busu has her hands out. Harry starts to pinch and flick her fingers, shouting ‘No!’
“Do you go out much with Harry?’ Sally asks.
“Well I find it really difficult with his behaviour, he gets so angry”, Busu says, tucking her straight, dark, bobbed hair behind her ear.
“It’s really good for children this ages to play with children near them even if they don’t share at this age”, says Sally. “We’ll be making a group visit to the Children’s Centre in a few weeks, would you like to come?” Busu smiles and says yes.
Sally smiles back. “In the meantime we could come give you some fun ideas of how to play at home together as well?”
“Ok”, says Busu.
The following week I receive a voice message from Busu, her voice calm as she says: “I should never have agreed to doing this. I didn’t feel very comfortable… My home is for us as a family. I don’t know how Harry’s going to be, it probably won’t work”.
Busu walks into the communal room with Noah who is carrying Harry. Noah puts him down and straight away Harry reaches up to him waving his hands. His dad picks him up and sits on the floor with him.
“What’s this?” I say pulling out a big red bucket of coloured plastic balls. I take out two and roll them on the floor. Harry picks up a ball and looks at it, he looks at me then throws it towards me.
“Thank you”, I say and throw it back to him. He picks it up and throws it across the room. He starts to smile. His dad picks it up and throws it back. Harry starts to laugh. I pick up a ball and throw it into the bucket. I give a ball to Harry and he throws it in the bucket. We all take a ball and Harry smiles as we all throw the balls into the bucket.
I’m sitting at my desk with my phone against my ear as it rings. Someone picks up “Hello?”
“Hi Busu, it’s Helen from Creative Homes”, I say. “I’m just calling to check it’s still ok to come visit you and Harry at home next week to share some more fun ideas for ways to play?”
“Yes that’s fine”, says Busu, “we’re looking forward to it”.
It’s a damp, misty January morning. I walk with Busu, Noah and Harry to their local Children’s Centre for their first visit. We’re in a large light room with floor to ceiling windows on one side and big glass doors on the other leading out to a landscaped garden/playground. The room is filled with about 15 children under five and their parents, mostly mums. Noah tries to put Harry down but he reaches up and gives short, sharp screams.
Busu looks around the room, “I worry he’s not doing what he’s supposed to” she says, “that he won’t do what the other children are doing”.
“Don’t worry”, I say “every child goes at their own pace and is interested in different things in their own way”.
I lead them to the playdough table and all of us sit down on low wooden chairs. I show Harry how to roll the playdough flat with a wooden pin. I offer the pin to him but he just looks at it without taking it. Then I get a windmill shaped cookie cutter, he reached for it and presses it into the soft clay. He picks up the cut out shape, he laughs. Busu smiles “I’m surprised he’s sitting here for so long, I didn’t think he’s be so interested in this”, she says. A little girl walks over, Harry hands her the cutter. She takes it then hands it back. Harry watches her walk away then goes back to making cut outs.
Our final step with a family is to connect them to pathways for support with home, health and housing, helping them access services such as; children’s centres, parks, libraries, museums, employment and housing support.
At Creative Homes we build trust with families over time. This trust allows adults and children to build confidence in themselves, being together in their home and often is the catalyst for families getting out and about and connecting to new services and families around them. We are often asked ‘Don’t families feel uncomfortable with you being in their homes?’ Busu’s story shows how this feeling can change so quickly once you see your children respond playfully and socially and how quickly the right support can enable a family to take control of their daily stress and seek the support they need.
‘You’ve made it easier for the families to connect with the children’s centre. In the past it seems that the only time they’ve engaged is when they’re obligated for social services.’
– Jackie powell, support officer for Ekaya, based at Te’yen House
Ekaya Housing Association is a not for profit organisation, with over 25 years of experience providing housing and accommodation support to predominately black and ethnic minority women and their families in South London.
*All names have been changed to protect the family’s privacy.