Homestart's heartfelt thanks to those who helped make a difference to Antrim families this Christmas

HOME-START in Antrim has been able to deliver dozens of hampers to needy families in the town, thanks to the generosity of local people.

Castle Mall offered space to be used as a donation point and packing unit by the organisation.

Sharon Caldwell Scheme Organiser, said: “I would love to take this opportunity to thank the local community for their generosity to our 25th Home-Start Antrim Christmas Appeal.

“We are about to deliver 60 hampers to families in the next few days.

“Pamela Minford and the Castle Mall have been great hosts and donated a story book to each family.

“We are very grateful for financial donations from all the local businesses , churches and organisations who make this all possible.

“We have received both financial and food donations from Hendersons NI, Power NI, Gordons Chemist, Bairds Funeral Directors, Antrim Grammar, First Antrim Presbyterian, High Street Presbyterian, Loanends Presbyterian, The Old Presbyterian Templepatrick, Muckamore WI, Antrim Foodbank and a number of individuals

“Can we also express our special thanks to Journey Community Church who have provided toys for many of these families through their generous Toy Tales Project.

“Not forgetting my amazing Home -Start Volunteers who give of their time to sort, pack and deliver hampers during a very busy time .

“Thank you all for making this support to local families possible every Christmas.”

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.

While the pandemic impacted on home visits and group meetings, contact was kept up through phone and online and Home-Start was able to deliver various courses digitally.

Home-Start also runs the Baby Bank in Castle Mall.

Following the success of the ‘Baby Bank’ in Newtownabbey and Glengormley, they approached Sharon 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.

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.

“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.”

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