26 May 2005

Comments by Nigel Williams, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People at the launch of the Home Start book Changing Lives in Northern Ireland on Thursday 26th May 2005 at the NICCY Offices Belfast

It is an enormous privilege for me to welcome all of you Home Start staff, volunteers, families and guests to this book launch.

I have a confession to make. I am a Home Start fan. It is such a simple idea, that those who have experience of parenting, of having been through the mill themselves link up with those who are currently struggling with their family responsibilities And all of this done within a framework of proper training of volunteers, appropriate support for them, and careful management of the process.

I think this is not just what the management consultants call a win-win. Rather it is a win-win-win! Let me explain.

There is no doubt that the mothers and fathers of the families are helped as a result of the relationship they develop with their volunteers. I nearly said “the visits they receive from volunteers” but that does not do justice to the nature of support, or the friendships that develop. This book makes clear the enormous benefit that parents feel as a result of the simple practical support they feel.

Let me just quote two different mothers mentioned in the book. One mother from the north coast said “Thank you for giving me a friend”. Another mother from Craigavon said “I would recommend Home Start to anyone. It is the most reliable voluntary organisation I have had contact with.” What commendations!

So that is the first win, for the parents.

The second group who win is the children. Happier parents mean happier children. But as the book shows, children also grow to love their volunteers, look forward to their visits, and respond to their encouragement and advice. One mother describes in the book how she struggled with potty training. It made me recall the early years of my own four children’s lives – what parent doesn’t struggle with potty training. But what this mother found was that the simple quiet approach that her Home Start volunteer took did the trick. Happy child and very happy Mum. So that’s two groups of winners.

But on reading this book it became very clear that there was also a third group who win through Home Starts’ work, and that is the volunteers. Again and again in the book you read of volunteers talking about the satisfaction they get from helping families. Grannies talk of having extra grand children; those who have been depressed talk of helping those who are now struggling with depression; and widows write of the satisfaction of helping mothers to cope who have just lost their own husbands.

It is perhaps not surprising that the volunteers and indeed workers talk so warmly of the Home Start organisation. Let me just quote a couple, as it happens both called Margaret and both from Antrim.

One said “So in this cynical dog eat dog world it is gratifying to know that there is a body of people quietly getting on with being a force for good in the community” ...

…and the other said “I believe in the idea – the simple philosophy of sharing experiences with others. It can change lives for the better.”

As Commissioner for Children and Young People for Northern Ireland my job is to safeguard the rights and best interests of children and young people. There is no doubt in my mind that Home-Start fulfils a very important role in relation to that goal.

The crucial aspect of Home-Start for me is that it provides help to children when it is most needed, where it is most needed, by those who really can get alongside because of their own experience. It is early intervention in children’s lives of the most valuable kind.

Of course, Home-Start is no substitute for professional support and help where that is necessary – whether that be medical help, speech and language therapy, counselling, or other professions. But then Home-Start does not attempt to fulfil that role. Rather it is about getting alongside parents and helping them be better parents.

So I heartily congratulate you on producing this book. Thank you to Vodafone for sponsoring it – I am glad that some of your billions of profits announced earlier this week are going to such a good cause. Thank you to all the parents, staff and volunteers who bravely contributed their experience. It is a must read – you will smile and if you are like me, you will shed the odd tear too!

Thank you.