Nap­pies, wipes ... and hope: how baby banks are trans­form­ing lives

In Bri­tain, 4.1 mil­lion chil­dren are liv­ing in poverty. Yvonne Roberts spends a week with the vol­un­teers who dis­trib­ute vi­tal sup­plies to strug­gling fam­i­lies

The Observer - - Focus -

Niyah, six months old, chews the un­wrapped present Fa­ther Christ­mas has just given her. She’s nor­mally a smiler, but is not about to be­stow a gummy grin on him – at least, not yet. Niyah and her mother, Rachael Aldrin-Quaye, are at a Christ­mas party run by the char­ity Lit­tle Vil­lage, a baby bank that has its home in a large, brightly dec­o­rated church hall in Bal­ham, south Lon­don. Rachael was re­ferred when she was preg­nant and on a low in­come. Lit­tle Vil­lage pro­vided her with 40 items of cloth­ing plus equip­ment for her un­born baby, in­clud­ing nap­pies and toys.

Aldrin-Quaye cud­dles her daugh­ter as she says: “It’s Niyah’s first Fa­ther Christ­mas and he’s been very gen­er­ous – but it’s Lit­tle Vil­lage that has made a huge dif­fer­ence to our lives.” The visit for 40 items can be re­peated ev­ery three months for each child up to the age of five. Lit­tle Vil­lage un­der­stands poverty.

Aldrin-Quaye has a spinal con­di­tion, so she can’t carry the baby’s buggy. The fam­ily live in a rented sec­ond-floor, one-bed­room flat cost­ing £600 a month and there’s no lift. Her hus­band works, but hopes for a bet­ter job in Jan­uary. Rachael is pay­ing off debts in­curred at the age of 18 at £5 a month. She is now 32. Soon af­ter Niyah was born, AldrinQuaye be­came a Lit­tle Vil­lage vol­un­teer, as a num­ber of those re­ferred do. She has also re­turned many of the items. “Lots of peo­ple re­turn stuff, beau­ti­fully wrapped,” she says proudly. “It mat­ters, do­ing some­thing for oth­ers.”

I spent last week with Lit­tle Vil­lage at its baby banks in Cam­den and Bal­ham (it has a third in South­wark). As well as the usual busi­ness of dis­tribut­ing baby clothes and equip­ment, it had Santa giv­ing

‘Lit­tle Vil­lage made a huge dif­fer­ence to the life of me and my daugh­ter’ Rachael Aldrin-Quaye, Lon­don baby bank user

gifts to the chil­dren. Last Christ­mas, Lit­tle Vil­lage gave out 350 presents. This year it will be 1,300.

“Each of our ar­eas has streets with mil­lion-pound houses, and fam­i­lies with­out beds whose chil­dren are sleep­ing on the floor,” Sophia Parker, founder of Lit­tle Vil­lage says. “Baby banks ought not to ex­ist – but while they do, we want to be there for ev­ery strug­gling fam­ily. It’s not about the rich giv­ing to the poor, but about fam­i­lies help­ing fam­i­lies in the same com­mu­nity

‘Peo­ple are so gen­er­ous but I feel so an­gry about what is hap­pen­ing in our so­ci­ety’

Sophia Parker, founder of Lit­tle Vil­lage char­ity

– a cy­cle of giv­ing.” In 2015 Parker, 40, wanted to give her sur­plus baby equip­ment to lo­cal fam­i­lies, but she dis­cov­ered it wasn’t easy. Then, a fam­ily nearby with a new baby lost ev­ery­thing in a fire. “I de­cided I needed to sort this.”

Preg­nant with her third child, she used lo­cal net­works to spread the word. The house soon over­flowed with con­tri­bu­tions. Even­tu­ally a room was given in a lo­cal church and what was orig­i­nally an “evening project” for Parker has now be­come a grow­ing chain of baby banks.

Two years on, Lit­tle Vil­lage has more than 170 vol­un­teers and 10 paid staff who work up to 28 hours a week. “It gives me hope that peo­ple are so gen­er­ous,” says Parker. “But af­ter 20 years work­ing as a pol­icy an­a­lyst look­ing at gen­der and poverty, I have never felt so an­gry and so sad­dened by what is hap­pen­ing in our so­ci­ety.”

Bri­tain in the 21st cen­tury is a place in which ba­bies are on the bread­line. Des­ti­tu­tion, hol­i­day hun- ger and food banks are be­com­ing a shame­fully nor­malised part of life in the fifth rich­est econ­omy in the world. More than 100 baby banks now op­er­ate in the UK, and they helped 35,000 fam­i­lies last year. Last week, the Joseph Rown­tree Foun­da­tion pub­lished its an­nual re­port, re­veal­ing that half a mil­lion more chil­dren have moved into poverty over the past five years, lift­ing the total fig­ure to 4.1 mil­lion.

In ev­ery school class of 30, nine chil­dren will be go­ing with­out.

Of the 14 mil­lion peo­ple in poverty, eight mil­lion live in fam­i­lies in which at least one per­son is in work – the first time in 20 years there has been a rise in this group.

Peo­ple with a dis­abil­ity, women, chil­dren and black and eth­nic mi­nori­ties have been hard­est hit by a com­bi­na­tion of dra­co­nian changes to ben­e­fits and work­ing tax cred­its, pri­vate rental costs, in­fla­tion and low pay. In Lon­don, 37% of chil­dren live in poverty. The cap­i­tal’s child­care, trans­port and hous­ing costs are far higher than in the rest of the UK. The gov­ern­ment says ab­so­lute poverty and in­come in­equal­ity have fallen, but the in­crease in wealth in­equal­ity in Lon­don, re­flected in its crane-stud­ded sky­line, is stag­ger­ing.

At 8.30am on Mon­day in a north Lon­don com­mu­nity cen­tre, Candice Woolf­son, 47, Lit­tle Vil­lage’s Cam­den site direc­tor, pre­pares the room for a three-hour ses­sion. Lit­tle Vil­lage re­ceives up to 250 re­fer­rals a month. They in­clude refugees and fam­i­lies with a dis­abil­ity, women flee­ing vi­o­lence and the work­ing poor. Half of the fam­i­lies are home­less or in tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion.

Woolf­son and the stock man­ager, Barb Chew­ings, a for­mer phar­ma­cist, pull out equip­ment and boxes of clothes. A vol­un­teer sits at each ta­ble with a re­ferred per­son or cou­ple and works through a check­list of needs. Peo­ple are en­cour­aged to ex­er­cise choice – a lux­ury for the poor. “Many have been treated as a num­ber in the sys­tem, judged and sanc­tioned,” Woolf­son says. “Some ar­rive an­gry and de­fen­sive. We train vol­un­teers to be non-judg­men­tal. They don’t try and fix peo­ple. It’s about kind­ness.”

Do­na­tions from wealthy Hamp­stead of­ten come by Uber. The rich, ob­vi­ously, in­vest a lot more in bring­ing up baby. Cer­tainly more than a refugee on £5.39 a day or a fa­ther on zero hours or the one in three on uni­ver­sal credit pay­ing back an ad­vance. So Lit­tle Vil­lage pro­vides gifts, “not hand­outs”, from mod­er­ate to de luxe. “We say only do­nate what you would give to a fussy friend,” Chew­ings ex­plains.

Fundrais­ing brings Lit­tle Vil­lage £150,000 a year. The aim is to ex­pand to £600,000 a year. Each re­fer­ral costs £230, mainly cov­er­ing staff, train­ing and premises. Some par­ents feel shame that they can­not pro­vide. Chil­dren come with shoes two sizes too small and no coat. One mother with an autis­tic son was moved from a south Lon­don refuge to an outer sub­urb. Her son is happy in the lo­cal school, though, so the mother spends £3.60 on bus fares, then walks around all day until school fin­ishes be­fore tak­ing a bus back – anx­i­ety un­nec­es­sar­ily piled on trauma and poverty. Many moth­ers fear their chil­dren will be taken into care in a wel­fare sys­tem that can seem like quick­sand, suck­ing them un­der. An eval­u­a­tion un­der way al­ready demon­strates how Lit­tle Vil­lage’s ethos, op­er­a­tions and sup­port di­min­ish the stress.

En­tela is ex­hausted. She tells how eight months ago she fled an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship in Al­ba­nia with her five-year-old son. She was a lawyer. They live on £86 a month from the Bri­tish Red Cross. She shares a room with him and her friend’s two lit­tle daugh­ters. A third of peo­ple re­ferred to Lit­tle Vil­lage have no re­course to pub­lic funds. They re­ceive no ben­e­fits. It is En­tela’s son’s birth­day. “He wants one present,” she says, and the tears come.

Woolf­son and Dehn, a new vol­un­teer, help En­tela choose clothes, books and shoes, and add sev­eral beau­ti­fully wrapped presents. Woolf­son sug­gests to En­tela that she re­turn the next day as a vol­un­teer, which she does.

“My par­ents came to Bri­tain af­ter the Viet­nam war,” Dehn says later. “Then, there was a tol­er­ance of refugees.” She now has a se­nior job in ad­ver­tis­ing. “Lit­tle Vil­lage made me want to re­train. I can’t change this bro­ken sys­tem, but I can help oth­ers sur­vive it bet­ter.”

On Tues­day morn­ing in Bal­ham, vol­un­teers gather for a brief­ing from site direc­tor Re­becca Wil­son, 42, a for­mer se­nior ad­ver­tis­ing ac­counts man­ager, then a child­min­der. “Lit­tle Vil­lage is highly pro­fes­sional,” she says. “It’s an idea that works.”

Meaghan, 22, is Aus­tralian and a busi­ness grad­u­ate. Cur­rently she is a nanny. Her em­ployer vol­un­teers, too. Meaghan plans to qual­ify as a so­cial worker. “My mum and dad had sub­stance mis­use is­sues, so when I was lit­tle we re­lied on baby banks,” she says. “I un­der­stand the emo­tions of many of the women who come here, the hu­mil­i­a­tion. But ev­ery­one is treated with re­spect. That counts.”

Vol­un­teer Vicky Jones, 36, has brought daugh­ter Isla, 18 months. They live on uni­ver­sal credit of £1,000 a month, pay­ing back an ad­vance. Jones was re­ferred when preg­nant. She was a nurs­ery nurse earn­ing £1,200 a month af­ter tax, pay­ing £500 rent for a shared stu­dio flat. Her re­la­tion­ship ended when Isla was newly born. “I was broke, and cry­ing all the time. I thought I couldn’t be the mum I wanted to be. I came here and a huge bur­den was lifted from my shoul­ders. I’ve grown mas­sively in con­fi­dence.”

She tried to go back to work, but child­care fees have to be paid up front and uni­ver­sal credit pay­ments are de­ferred. “I’ll try again when Isla is two and I can get 30 hours of free child­care. Lit­tle Vil­lage is a huge part of my life. Sophia is the sis­ter I never had. Now, I know I can be a role model for my daugh­ter.”

On Wed­nes­day morn­ing, the hall is trans­formed. Vol­un­teers have put up Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions. Chil­dren play. The vestibule, nave and pews of the church are over­flow­ing with clothes, toys, cots, baby gyms and prams from the pre­vi­ous night’s monthly do­na­tion drop-in. Space is a chal­lenge. Over the next three hours, 25 fam­i­lies are wel­comed. Their cir­cum­stances echo the re­cent damn­ing re­port by Philip Al­ston, UN rap­por­teur on ex­treme poverty and hu­man rights. He said the lev­els of UK de­pri­va­tion and mis­ery were a political choice, “a so­cial calamity and an eco­nomic disas­ter”. New Labour lifted a mil­lion chil­dren out of poverty. It can be done.

Roza­line, 28, has two daugh­ters un­der two. She came from Nige­ria with her hus­band. She moved to a refuge but is on a spousal visa so has no re­course to pub­lic funds. Her chil­dren are classed as “in need”, so she gets £110 a week from the lo­cal au­thor­ity. They are now in a hos­tel. She beams at the pile of baby clothes.

Shirley Joe, 52, works part-time. Her daugh­ter Abbi, 24, has a son aged four, and an­other baby due in Fe­bru­ary. Her con­tract ended and she hadn’t been em­ployed long enough to get ma­ter­nity pay. Abbi Joe’s part­ner is look­ing for work. The fam­ily live with Shirley Joe be­cause they are be­hind with the rent and can’t af­ford to use the heat­ing or gas. Abbi Joe has six weeks to wait for her uni­ver­sal credit. To­day Shirley Joe is de­light­edly col­lect­ing items for her com­ing grand­child. “My house is warm; there is food on the ta­ble. We’ll get by,” she says. “It’s not so bad.” But, in a pro­foundly un­fair so­ci­ety and as long as there is a need for baby banks, it is.

LEFT Shirley Joe looks for clothes for her grand­son from items at the Bal­ham baby bank. BE­LOW Baby bank staff with do­na­tions; Vicky Jones and daugh­ter Isla meet Santa.

LEFT Rachael AldrinQuaye and her baby Niyah at Lit­tle Vil­lage. Pho­to­graphs by Richard Saker for the Ob­server

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