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‘Sure Start’ keeps families busy at home during pandemic

Photo of Sure Start mum Sarah Duncan from East Belfast with her three boys.
Sure Start mum Sarah Duncan from East Belfast with her three boys.

Sure Start Children’s Centres across Northern Ireland have been providing extra support to families during the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are currently 38 Sure Start centres commissioned and supported by the Health and Social Care Board and funded by the Department of Education.

The centres target parents with children under the age of four living in disadvantaged areas. The project delivers a wide variety of health, family support and early education services which are designed to support children’s learning skills, health and well-being, and social and emotional development.

A range of Sure Start programmes have been redesigned specifically during the current Covid-19 lockdown and are being presented online or via social media including; breastfeeding support via Zoom for mums and babies; Rhyme Rhyme & StoryTime; Shakers, Movers and Groovers which encourages dancing and ‘Ready, Steady GO Games’ facilitated by Speech and Language Therapists using a video blog promoting the development of attention and listening skills for kids.

Mother of three boys, Sarah Duncan from East Belfast, has been using her local Sure Start services for the past number of years. Sarah’s two youngest boys are now in the programme with one boy aged 3 in the “Butterfly” programme and one boy aged 2 in “Little Learners”.

When the lockdown came into force, just like any other parent, Sarah was worried about how her boys would cope being out of their routine.

Sarah explained; “I was really anxious and worried about Covid-19 as we all are, but I was also worried about how the boys would cope with the change of education, structure and being in the house all day with no set routine.

“My two youngest boys have ASD and additional needs so it probably gave me a bit more of a worry on how we would cope.”

Sarah soon realised help was at hand and that she wasn’t alone.

“I really needn’t have worried, East Belfast Sure Start were straight on the ball. First of all we received phone calls from their  key workers asking how we were and if there was anything we needed.

“Then WhatsApp groups were set up for each of their classes such as bedtime stories, it was great the boys were able to see their key workers and brought back some normality to us. We are getting phone calls from their key workers every week just to check in and to see if we need anything.

“Then Zoom calls were set up. The boys were able to see their classmates and able to sing along with songs and that routine is really good.”

Not only does Sure Start help Sarah with the boys, they also provide workshops for her and parents alike every week.

“I also attend an “Additional Needs” for parent’s workshop every week. We have been able to keep this going through a WhatsApp group.

“Sure Start all have their own families at home but they are all still there to help us out. They have gone way beyond expectations, they are there when we need them, they’re keeping our kids entertained and they are doing a brilliant job. I just want to say thank you.”

Kevin Duggan, Sure Start Lead from the Health and Social Care Board explained: Sure Starts have been at the heart of communities across NI now for 20 years. They provide vital health, family support and early education services to over 36,000 families. In this time of crisis they evolved and innovated using many virtual tools. Importantly, Sure Start has also maintained vital face to face contact with many families through “garden gate visits” adhering to social distancing while at same time providing parenting support and practical resources from food parcels to play and parenting resources. In the most challenging of times family support services such as this have never been so important.”

Feeling proud, East Belfast Sure Start Manager, Tracey Wilson, stated, “I am very proud of all the work of staff here in East Belfast. They are working around the clock to ensure families are supported both through our new online tools and services, but critically maintaining were possible our real world services to meet the needs of all families.”

If you would like to get involved with your local Sure Start go to www.childcarepartnerships.hscni.net for details of your local project.