Hub Manager and Lead Artist Helen tells the story of two families she met during an 18-week Creative Homes hub and in Mitcham that ran from October to March 2018, in partnership with L&Q housing.
When we start a new project we can never predict who we will meet, each time I’m surprised despite myself by just how individual and complex everyone’s family is. That’s why it’s really important for us to be flexible and adapt our service to support so many different families with their own individual needs. It all starts with a playgroup but really it’s so much more.
It’s a bright October morning and I’m on a housing estate in South London knocking on doors with fliers and craft packs to promote the return of the Creative Homes playgroup, after almost a year’s break in funding. I’m waiting outside a two-floor brick house with a smiley face drawn in chalk on the outside wall. A man sticks his head out of the 1st floor window. “Oh the playgroup is starting again?’ He asks smiling. “My wife Sadie’ll definitely bring our little girl April. Thanks!”
I’m on the second floor of a block of flats, up three steep flights of stairs, outside a door with empty nappy boxes are piled up against the corridor wall, small shoes lined up against the other. Marie answers with a baby on her hip, a toddler squeezes out around her ankles and smiles up at me. I tell her about the playgroup and Marie says, “I can’t come. I find it really difficult to get out of the house with Ben (18 months) and Davie (6 months) and no lift. I’ve got something wrong with my knee so can’t carry everything down at once and don’t want to leave one alone either end”. I offer to help her get down stairs in the morning before the playgroup. We exchanged numbers.
It’s 8am and I’m on a train to Mitcham in the rain. A messages buzzes up on my phone screen, it’s from Marie ‘Sorry I have another appointment today. Please don’t ring the buzzer as will make the dogs start barking.’
Two hours later I’m dressed as Sam the toilet training sailor, singing a song with my pet parrot Polly. Sadie and her daughter April (18 months) have come to every session so far. Sadie tries to join the song, April who mostly just watches the action. At the end Polly perches on the potty and does a ‘wee’. Then we play musical potties, by the end amber is sitting on a one by herself. Sadie crouches next to her smiling. “I got one for her at home but she just kept standing in it so I thought right she’s not ready and I put it away. Think it’s time to try again, even though it’s not much fun”.
Sadie and April arrive first at the playgroup. April stays very quiet and close to her mum. “We’ve been using the toilet sailor song you sent us on whatsapp at home”, says Sadie. “I made my eldest Stacy (10 years) and her friend learn it too”. We laugh together.
We ran an evolving Toilet Training Sailor session for 3 weeks. April immediately mastered and enjoyed the potty water race. By the second week she was teaching other children how to play.
“April did her first poo in the potty Emma tells me with a big smile, didn’t you?” Sadie says with a big smile on her face. “I had to take a photos, it’s a bit weird but I was so proud and it’s such a tiny little poo” she grins showing me a picture. “I told my health worker about your group and all the potty training things we’ve been doing, she was impressed”.
April makes toilet training and toothbrushing craft packs at home with her sister, sent to us by Sadie via our playgroup WhatsApp.
Marie still hasn’t been to the playgroup despite me offering to help every week. This week she texts me: “Sorry Helen, completely forgot I have a hospital appointment about my knee tomorrow”.
It’s afternoon, I’m out delivering craft packs to local families and I see Marie pushing her big double buggy up the road. We chat about her appointment. “Do you need me to give you a hand with the buggy up the stairs?” I ask.
“Yes please”, says Marie. Climbing the three flights of stairs with the weight of 18-month old Ben in my arms I really understand what a struggle it is for Marie just to leave her house. I set Ben down inside and he shows me some of his toys. “I’ve done everything I can think of to try to get a better place but Sutton council won’t rehouse us”. Marie says. “Really appreciate your help”.
Marie opens her door. Ben is standing there with his blue puffer coat in hand. He smiles at me, coming out into the hall and trying to put his coat on. “Door”, he says pointing to hall door. “Yes that’s the door, are you ready to go?” I ask helping him on with his coat.
Marie and I walk to the playgroup with Ben and Davie is in the double pushchair. As soon as we arrive Ben gets out and walks over to where April and Mia are playing with recycled materials, picks up a green water bottle and starts putting lolly sticks in one by one. ‘It’s nice to have a little boy in the mix’ says Sadie smiling up at Marie from where sitting on the floor.
During snack Marie says to me, “I think I’m going to have to go soon, I though this one would sleep”, nodding to Davie in her arms, “but he isn’t and I can’t help with Ben with my arms full”. I help Ben cut his bananas so Marie is free to rock Davie until soon he does fall asleep. They end up staying until the end of the session.
During this project we are trialling a reward scheme to increase family attendance, including the grand prize for the first family to attend 12 session: a special piece of furniture dedicated to play. Sadie and her family are the first to attend 12 session, in fact they don’t miss a single one during the whole 18 weeks.
“We’ve been loving the play furniture”, says Sadie as we walk to a session at the childrens centre on a bright March morning. “Yesterday we had the den up and I put the potty in there. After April’s bath she was naked and she went and got a book of the furniture shelf then sat down on the potty by herself, it was brilliant. Stacey’s been loving building dens off it as well”.
Later, when door knocking Sadie opens the door as we go past. I saw you coming, would you like to pop in and see what we’ve done with the furniture?”
As part of our Pathways service I am linking ten families to local services for further support with home, health and/or play. As I approach Sadie’s door I wonder if she will appreciate my help, can I really make a difference to her difficult and complex housing situation?
She answers the door wearing dark clothes, a long black cardigan, dark circles under her eyes. I hear Ben behind in the sitting room chattering.
“I’ve hurt my shoulder trying to take the buggy up the stairs, the wheel got caught and that was enough to pull my shoulder out”, Sadie says. I mention that the local Children’s Centre might be able to help by assigning her a lead practitioner for more support and maybe they have more status with the council.
“Ye to be honest I’m feeling like maybe it’s coming to that point’ gem says shrugging.
Several weeks later Sadie did have a Children’s Centre worker visit her home and was assigned a Lead Practitioner to help her get the support she needs and hopefully find a more suitable home for her and her family.
I am very grateful to Creative Homes for all the kindness and support they have offered me and my daughter, we have both learnt quite a bit.
– Sadie, mum of 2
From a family who attends every group session and really embeds what they learn with us in their own life, to one who has barriers to accessing the group, we tailor our approach so that each family receives the unique support they need. From the outside our projects might seem like just a playgroup, but to the families we meet they can be so much more.