Maggie Farrell, Community Engagement Worker, Children First

Phase 1 story (Spring / Summer 2020)

How have you been able to keep a focus on what matters to people during COVID? 

My way of working with families in East Renfrewshire has changed significantly since lockdown. We moved very quickly at the end of March to focusing on practical support including delivery of food parcels and wellbeing boxes to families who were struggling. Doorstep conversations are now part of my working week and in some ways, they have helped me get to know families better, and conversations have turned to what really matters in the here and now.  

What have you had to do differently and what made this possible? 

In one family, the mother who is a single parent, confided in me early on that she was very  anxious about her son’s birthday and making sure that she had a good celebration during  lockdown. I’ve found I got to know this woman better through our doorstep conversations  and she has shared information about financial worries, fuel poverty, family feuds and  unresolved loss. I also found out that she loves cleaning, baking and drawing. She used to win  prizes for athletics and loves her nephews and nieces to bits.  

Using her flair for drawing and baking over the past weeks, we helped her plan a birthday to  remember for her son. The plan involved cakes made at home and hand drawn pictures by  way of decoration. While doing that, we were also working with her allocated worker to  unravel the knot of financial and relationship worries.  

The day of the birthday party, I turned up to drop off a card and gift for the son. However,  the mother was seriously upset as an older and violent relative who she usually has no  contact with, had turned up unannounced to drop off a card for her son. The shock of this  appearance had left the woman feeling panicked.  

There and then, we both focused on her breathing and sat together on the ground with our  eyes shut, thinking about some of the positive things she had shared over recent weeks.  While I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to do that with her before lockdown, I  felt what I was doing was a good fit with our organisation’s emphasis on compassionate  connection. 

What have you noticed that has been better?

I think that things have been stripped back under lockdown. People are more isolated and  less able to access services than before. While this presents huge challenges it also means  that we have to be ready and willing to connect with people, instead of thinking about who  to refer people on to.  

How did this make you feel?  

I feel a bit more confident about my own skills and resources. I still know the limits of my  role and when is the time to seek outside professional help. But being there for people and  just listening, acknowledging and valuing them seems more important than ever.  

What have you learned through this?  

I’m in no doubt that on that day, that parent wasn’t thinking about what was in her foodbank  parcel. From what she has shared of her history this is a woman who has experienced little  compassion in her life. She really wants to make sure that her son has a different story to tell.  

Every interaction and conversation potentially has more impact in these circumstances, and  it’s important now and always to connect in ways that make a difference to people.  

Anything else you want to tell us?  

Every conversation counts. This was always true but lockdown puts a spotlight on that for all of us.

Phase 2 story (Autumn 2020)

What has continued to help keep a focus on what matters for people during the  pandemic? 

We still do some face to face work with families. I feel like I spend more time with  individual families than previously. Most of the team (20 of us) have continued  garden/walking visits as well as telephone/teams support.

People who have poor mental health often blame themselves or their domestic  situation for that. In this instance, the pandemic is totally out of their control and  people need to be reminded they are reacting to this in a very human way. It is  completely understandable if mental health takes a dip or a different turn in  recovery. It is important to support people to focus on what they can control. Two  key things that we are paying closer attention to are access to tech and poverty. 

1. Technology

  • Providing connection through offering devices to parents and children has helped. Parents are then able to access social media, news, education and  learning, advice, health support, and attend social teams video meetings.  
  • Many peer support and recovery groups are now online, which in the initial  phase excluded many parents/carers. 

2. Action on poverty

  • Accessing money and rights advice has been central to my recent work – the harsh  impact of being isolated at home, made redundant and/or struggling to pay utility  bills, replace broken furniture and appliances has greatly increased. Bringing  essential food supplies weekly or twice weekly has connected me to families in new ways.  
  • Many families are deep in arrears for electricity and gas. They haven’t understood  DWP rules and are facing compliance interviews and adjudication 
  • I find myself playing advocate, writing funding applications for emergency  essentials, ‘encouraging and utilising excellent neighbourly support networks to  ensure something happens’
  • Our service mainly focuses on emotional wellbeing for 8 to 18 year olds. However  the pandemic has revealed a need at grassroots level for wider family support and  community development.

Are there changes that seem to be lasting longer term and are there things that have  slid back to old ways of doing things?

After a break in referrals as soon as the first national lockdown was lifted, we saw a  massive increase in referrals from GP’s. There is pressure to develop new ways of working  to respond to demand.

Demand for food bank delivery grows. I see people needing this support weekly and not  just an occasional delivery in a crisis. I would like to see more shopping vouchers to give  people fresh ingredients to cook with or a small local shop for cheap fresh items as the  food bank items are all non-perishables. Originally we also had a Humanitarian Food Hub to pick up from. This distributed fresh fruit, veg and eggs. This was disbanded at the end  of July. People loved it. 

We continue to create resilience packs, activity gift boxes for children and parents every  few months, which are delivered regularly. We send out regular postcards which are  always well received. 

We are beginning to offer a regular Thursday evening interactive webinar for families to  explore wellbeing, anxiety and brain development in adolescence amongst other issues.  Numbers for this have increased from a small group during lockdown of between 4 and 6  to sometimes over 25 parents wishing to take part.

What difference has this made to people? 

I think people have a little more confidence in asking about different types of help. Many ask can they learn some of the coping strategies I teach their children. I usually ask  the children to teach their parents but still offer a listening ear at a local café or park.  

As an organisation, I feel the Chief Executive and management have been really helpful in  telling people “to do what you can when you can.” We openly share a collective  exhaustion and groundhog day feeling at times but people are very keen to support you  to self-care and take time out. I feel wholly supported and ‘held’ by most of my team and  the executive. 

I think as an organisation, we are constantly evolving to support people’s outcomes and  by doing so demonstrating that it is ok to show vulnerability and essential as humans to  share our need for basic human needs and rights but also need for connection and  kindness. For the first time in over 30 years practice I think I have actually cried “with”  family members on a number of occasions, previously I might have thought this was  unprofessional now I think its human, it’s sad and cruel what you are having to cope with .  Why wouldn’t I cry with you. 

Phone support – text and phone calls/video calls are great for keeping in touch but the  most powerful support and most difficult conversations I have had, have been face to  face in people’s closes, gardens, swing park, car park.

How did this make you feel?  

It confirms my belief that relationships are the key to unlocking people’s needs, strengths  and vulnerabilities. No matter how excellent and complex an online app is, I am not sure it will replace  human to human story telling.

Reflecting on your experiences what have you learned? 

Good relationships and trust are everything.  

I’ve learned that just as we make assumptions about families at times, families also need  to see that you can also make mistakes, laugh, cry, clean a loo, peel a tattie, grow a  sunflower, bleach a bin or move a wardrobe. 

I need to plan in more regular short breaks using my annual leave.

What difference has it made to you to tell your story as part of this project? 

It has given me some time and space and parameters in which to reflect on my changing  practice. Within our team we have reflective practice sessions in small groups, fortnightly team meetings and supervision. Whilst this is far more than say teachers have in school =  to tell my current story without interruption has been useful in helping me process some  of the trauma I have witnessed through offering a higher level of contact than previously.