By Sian Bayley, Local Democracy Reporter
It’s all systems go at Little Village in Balham.
Situated in St Mark’s Church, just off Rowfant Road, a team of volunteers are busily putting up tables and moving boxes of baby clothes around a maze of cots and buggies.
It’s a drizzly Wednesday morning and the team are preparing for a group of 25 to 30 families to arrive, all in need of essential clothes, toys and toiletries for their children.
Little Village works like a food bank, but for baby equipment, clothes, and toys.
Professional partners such as midwives and health visitors may notice a family is struggling and refer them to Little Village to pick up some essentials.
After briefly queuing outside, the guest is welcomed in and encouraged to sit with a volunteer to go through a ‘shopping list’ of the things she needs.
This allows her to choose what she wants, in an effort to make the experience as dignified as possible.
While choosing, her children are free to play at the tables in the centre of the room, giving the space a friendly playgroup feel.
Mum Vicky Jones first used Little Village more than a year ago.
She had just split with her partner, and had a young child, and felt like she had nowhere to go.
“I used to work in a nursery, but when I had my daughter I got quite bad depression and anxiety and found going back to work quite scary,” she said.
“They said I was not who I used to be.”
Fortunately Vicky was invited to Little Village to pick up some essentials for her daughter, as well as have some much-needed social interaction.
“It was a completely different experience to what I was expecting. I felt like a family member coming into the family home. They made me feel like I could be a good mum,” she said.
“I was worried about not being able to afford certain things for my daughter. I thought ‘I’m not going to be able to give her what I want to give her’.”
Now Vicky is a volunteer with the charity, and helps to run a morning creche as well as sort out the buggies for other parents in her position.
She says this has really helped her improve her mental health.
“I remember how kind the volunteers were to me as a parent, and I wanted to give the same back. I know what it’s like to be in that position,” she said.
Rebecca Wilson, programmes manager at Little Village, said she has seen many mums like Vicky, who move from being guests to volunteers.
“We invite them to be part of the Little Village community,” she said.
The charity now has more than 150 volunteers in Wandsworth, and encourages parents who have used the service to take part in running it to build confidence and local networks.
Now they are hoping to expand with the help of some funding the charity has received from Wandsworth council to pay for a part-time centre manager for a new ‘satellite unit’ at Eastwood Children’s Centre in Roehampton, which is due to open in May.
At the moment residents in Roehampton find it difficult to get to the Little Village site in Balham – the journey often takes more than an hour-and-a -half on two buses.
“We’re based in quite an affluent area, and it’s difficult to come out here,” said Rebecca.
“We’re very aware of the high levels of deprivation within the nearby Alton Estate and that families are not always able to access services here. Many families depend on public transport, and making the journey is all the more difficult if they are also dealing with mental and financial issues.”
Rebecca is keen to emphasise the importance of charities like Little Village in helping families, going beyond just providing a few extra clothes.
“It looks as if you just give out baby kit, but it isn’t just a buggy, it’s the ability for a mum to leave the front door and access a doctor’s appointment,” she said.
The charity also encourages parents to volunteer to boost their confidence and build on their employability skills.
“Certainly for the mums we see, childcare is prohibitive. It actively excludes women from getting out of the house and getting back into employment and from using their skills,” said Rebecca.
“That is both economically damaging for us as a society, but also personally and emotionally damaging for those women who go from feeling like they had a fulfilling job, whatever that was, to suddenly not being able to access that anymore. It can be really isolating.
“Our main objective was to make it really easy for families to connect with one another and to ensure that no child is without the essential items they need to thrive.”
One young mum, who did not wish to be named, arrived at the centre after being referred by a social worker.
She has three children, and has recently fled domestic abuse in the family home.
“I came out of the house with nothing,” she said. I have only got two pairs of clothes for each kid. But they are really kind here. Being here today has really helped.”
Ms Jones said: “We want parents to be able to find their individual family and style.”
Rebecca said as many as 50 to 60 per cent of families are referred back to Little Village for more items because they are dealing with multiple and ongoing needs, such as domestic violence and mental health problems, as well as issues with housing and money.
Their children also quickly grow out of the clothes they have been given.
However, the centre encourages parents not to come back more often than every three months, and when they do, they are encouraged to bring back the clothes their children have grown out of so they can be reused.
They are also picky about the clothes they accept.
“Families deserve good quality and safe kit,” she says.
“We always say we want the items that you would give to a really good, rather picky friend. We want them to be good quality, with no bobbles.”
This means that clothes can be used again and again and that families are given a confidence boost.
The clothes have even helped parents in custody situations, where assessors will often comment on the way children are dressed, and if they look ‘presentable.’
Rebecca says that parents are often worried about coming to the centre, and don’t want to accept charity, but she is always keen to remind them that asking for help shows they are trying to do the best for their children.
Unfortunately child poverty remains a pressing issue in the capital, and Rebecca reports that demand for services at Little Village in Wandsworth has gone up by 40 per in the last year.
She says that the charity has helped 6,000 families in the past four years, with 3,000 in the past year alone, and that access to affordable housing and affordable childcare are major concerns for many families.
“We very much share a philosophy with the food bank that we wish we didn’t exist,” said Rebecca.
“We work to campaign against the eradication of poverty and do as much as we can to help the voices of the families we see who come through.”
Little Village has seen a big downturn in its donations in the past week, which they believe is due to people staying at home due to the coronavirus outbreak.
However, many families in Wandsworth are still in need and do not have the resources to stockpile.
If you would like to donate to Little Village, please visit their website here.
Pictured top: Shelley Esposito from Citizens Advice Wandsworth (Picture: Grahame Larter)