This blog was written by Natalie Johnson, Programme Manager for Save the Children in Wales
Recently I came across some What Katy did Next books that belonged to my Nan. She gave them to me when I was about nine years old and I’ve treasured them ever since. Inside one of the books I found some bluebells that I had pressed, wilted but still in good tact.
My happiest childhood experience is of picking bluebells with my Nan in Smilog Forest near Llantrisant and making up stories about fairies and woodland creatures while we walked. We both shared a love of wild flowers and we loved picking them together for me to press, stopping for ice cream on the way back home.
I grew up in Pentre in the Upper Rhondda and I remember a lovely childhood, playing outside, building dens, playing up the mountain and in the nearby parks. It was a childhood of love and security, with supportive parents and close family. I always thought this was how I wanted to bring up my own children and that is what I have endeavoured to do with my two boys, now aged 17 and 19. I wanted them to have what I had taken for granted – to feel part of a loving family and to be able to flourish by being part of a close-knit community.
The power of close knit communities
The South Wales mining communities are historically renowned for being close. Everyone knew each other where I was brought up. We called our neighbours ‘Aunties’ and ‘Uncles’ although they were of no relation and I attended Sunday school, dance classes and the Brownies. There was a true sense of community spirit and everyone rallied to help each other in hours of need. I remember during the Miners Strikes in the 1980s how people came together to organise events, parades and decorate floats to raise money for those families affected, some of them living on my street.
I come from a family of singers and my Dad used to conduct charity concerts. My Mam did the organising and there were always people calling in at our house. I feel I’ve had very influential and strong role models in my life who have pointed me in the right direction and I’ve learnt a lot from my childhood community. I like being with people, listening to them and trying to help if I can. I think that is why I have found myself doing the job I do today.
Small changes can make a big difference
Seeing people overcome their problems and achieve great things with just a little bit of support is what makes me get up in the morning. During my time as a Family Liaison Officer in Treorchy Primary School nothing gave me more pleasure than to see children and their parents develop and grow in confidence. It gave me such a sense of achievement: children were performing better in school and families were happier.
I remember working with two young mums. They had very low esteem and thought that good jobs and holidays abroad were for other people. It was hard to get them to come through the door, but once they did and got involved in the cooking and sewing and different sessions they came every week. One said, “I’d love to be able to make a chicken dinner like my Mam”. And that’s just what we did. Seeing them flourish made me feel like a proud Mam myself!
When Save the Children came to Treorchy Primary School the two Mams and their families took part in one of our family engagement programmes. In common with several families from the school it took a lot of persuading, but they came week after week and were soon enjoying the activities, getting to know other families and the school staff and cooking meals. Parents at that school talked about the programme for years afterwards and it really bonded the parents, teachers and community together. As part of their journey the two mums went on to study and get degrees.
Working hand in hand to help children within the community
In my role as Programme Manager with Save the Children I’m currently working in a community in Newport which has been chosen as a focus area for our work. Save the Children has worked in Newport since 2013. We’ve supported almost 600 families to create a positive home environment through our Eat, Sleep, Learn, Play! programme and have worked with 13 schools to improve parental engagement in early learning. Newport is one of five ‘Children First’ pioneer’ areas – a new Welsh Government initiative to encourage the local community and organisations to join up more effectively to address the specific needs of children and young people. Save the Children are supporting to bring this ambition to life.
My aim is to connect local partners together and help them to be more collaborative in their work with local families to make sure children in the community get the best support available in their critical early years. Bringing everyone into the same room to understand what provision is already available has proved incredibly useful and everyone agrees that they need to work against the tendency of working in isolation and not sharing information. We’ve all agreed we need a joined-up approach.
We already have a head start in Newport. It is evident that the willingness is there with ‘Aunties’ and ‘Uncles’, as in my day, ready to make things happen in their community and inspirational teachers, school staff, service providers and practitioners reaching out to help in any which way they can. We recently held workshops in Pillgwenny in Newport, one of the most deprived communities in Wales, to discuss with stakeholders and service providers how we can bring science and research and community knowledge together to ensure that all children in Pill learn and thrive.
It’s all about bringing people together in the community so that, with the right support, every child can blossom in life. And that is where we can lend a helping hand.