A year in the life of Grace

This is a true story of a Christian CARE family. It is not a true story in that there is no one mother called Grace. It is true in that everything in her story has happened to families we know.

GILLIAN 1 CARE Coordinator

It is a Tuesday morning in October and I have come to the Office. The phone rings and Michael, our Office Administrator, answers it. He hands the phone across the desk to me. “It’s Charlotte from Wilderness Primary School in Mitcham” he says. Charlotte is the Parent Support Manager - she must have returned from maternity leave.

“Gillian” she says, “now I am a mother I find myself seeing all these parents who come into my office with different eyes. How would I cope if I had no partner to support me? I’ve had a pregnant mother in my office in great distress earlier this morning. I am about to send over a password protected referral to your secure email, but I thought I would just share with you about her situation first. Her name is Grace and she has 3 children at Wilderness. They arrived in the middle of the summer term when they were put into temporary accommodation round the corner. They had already been in temporary accommodation in Forest Hill for a year after an eviction, so the children were unsettled to put it mildly. Then during the school holiday the father walked out, and Grace can’t contact him. He’s an EU citizen with a German passport so she suspects that is where he has gone. She has a spousal visa, which is now invalid: He was drawing all the benefits, so there is no money. Gillian, she just broke down and wept when she said:”I don’t even have any money to buy bread and milk for the children today."

“Tell me about the children,” I say. “There’s Daniel aged 10 who has special educational needs; he’s been quite withdrawn since term started. Then Deborah’s 7 years old, usually so bright and full of smiles - but apparently she’s been coming into the classroom in tears most mornings. Ruth is 3 and in our afternoon nursery so she was with us in the office this morning. She kept climbing on her mother’s knee, hugging her and saying:”Mummy, I love you." Children can be so perceptive!

Gillian, before I leave school today I will contact Children’s Services. Hopefully they may deal with the rent and the immigration issues but you and I know that Grace will get no subsistence allowance For a start I gave her a Foodbank voucher and shall I ask Wimbledon Guild for a hardship payment? But I was wondering if you could help with food parcels“. I look across the desk to Anita who’s working on the September Family Support chart with Michael.”I’m sure we can," I say.

ANITA 1 Family Support Coordinator

It sounds like Grace really does need regular food support. I’ll phone and ask her what sort of food she likes and explain that we have a variety of tinned and packaged food. I can offer to do a fresh food shop to get them some fruit, vegetables and meat as well as some household items. Also, I’ll pack some toiletries which we keep on hand in the office. Sue always leaves out toys and books for us, so I will check the children’s ages and put a few of these in the bags, as well our “Love of Neighbour” card which will tell Grace more about who we are what we do.

After speaking to Grace, I head down to our food storage cupboards. We are so thankful that God has blessed us again this autumn with so many generous harvest donations from churches and schools. Our cupboards are full to overflowing! I won’t need to buy food supplies for a few months which means that money can be spent on other family needs. Grace has a 10 year old boy, Daniel, who is not eligible for school lunches, so I will speak to Sue to get her OK for us to pay for these, at least until Christmas.

As I am packing the tins of vegetables, hot dogs, fruit, the pasta, rice, oil and so on, I am thinking about which of our shopper/befrienders we might send to give this family the regular, fortnightly support they need. Lara is a volunteer who has just finished helping another family through a very difficult time. We are so encouraged when our families can settle down and become more independent. Over the last few months, Lara has been able to gently and sensitively bring her work with them to an end. She is keen to start helping a new family. I’ll phone Sylvia now to talk about Grace’s situation and see what she thinks about Lara befriending this family.

SYLVIA 1 Befrienders’ Coordinator

I put the phone down after speaking to Anita and turn on my computer to read the referral form from Gillian on my secure email. Would Lara be right for this family? She is a really empathetic person and also a very good listener. Yes, I think she would be ideal. I speak to her and she is more than ready to start befriending a new family. Then I telephone Grace to explain who I am and that I have a befriender called Lara who I would like her to meet. Grace is very pleased to receive my phone call and I arrange to go and visit her with Lara the very next day.

As we stagger with our bags up the uncarpeted stairs to the top of the house, there is the sickly odour of damp and mould. Both Lara and I are appalled at the living conditions. It is a multi-occupancy house with 4 families, all with children, sharing one kitchen and one bathroom. On top of all that, the kitchen is infested with cockroaches and mice, and the landlord is being difficult about getting the property fumigated. We ask Grace if she, with the agreement of the other tenants, might like us to write to the Environmental Health Department to see if they will visit.

We meet Grace’s 3 children who are really excited to see the bags of food, and their eyes light up like beacons on receiving the toys we brought as well. Considering their living conditions, Grace strives very hard to keep the place clean and tidy; there is a box for each of the children to keep what little belongings they had in. They are extremely well behaved and very polite in thanking Lara and I for the toys. All in all it is a very successful first visit; however just as we are about to leave Grace announces that she is expecting another baby in the New Year and she has nothing for the baby!

BARBARA 1 Baby, Children’s and Household Project Coordinator

I receive an urgent email in mid-October from Sylvia - one of her befrienders has visited a new family with 3 children, living in dreadful accommodation and a new baby is on the way and there are no funds for baby clothes or bedding. The referral form sent on by the CC Office confirms that the family accommodation is very cramped, so I make the decision to provide a light weight Moses basket rather than a cot, and pack into the basket all the basic essentials for the expected baby: first stage baby clothes, baby blankets, sheets and towels, nappies, a changing mat and bottle steriliser. I store most of these items pre-packed in the spare room at my house, so I can phone the Office first thing tomorrow to let Cresso know that these basic early items are now ready for delivery to the family.

The larger items, such as a cot and a folding push chair that the mother will need in a few months’ time are stored separately in locked sheds on our Church Hall site. At this stage, I look to see if I have suitable items, check their safety and that we have the correct instruction sheet and pack of cot screws, and I label them for later delivery.

CRESSO 1 Office Coordinator

I receive a call from Barbara in our Office. She has everything ready for Grace and wants me to arrange a delivery as soon as possible. I phone Grace to agree a convenient day and time to deliver the items.

I then ring several of our team of 14 Drive and Drop volunteers, and eventually get Angela, who has a large vehicle and is available to make the delivery. She is easy to talk to and very sensitive to the needs of others. Recently returned from her 3 weeks walking pilgrimage experience in Santiago, she is keen to get back to doing her volunteer work for CCA. Aware that Grace is expecting her fourth child and that she is alone with her other children, I suspect that quite often she is lonely, and engaging with someone like Angela, even for a short time, would be beneficial to her.

I email the instructions to Angela, together with Barbara’s address where the bags are ready for collection in her porch. Angela promises that she will report back to the office if she is aware of any concerns about Grace and her family, or if there are any further requests for help…

…And Angela is indeed on the phone to the office immediately she gets home to alert me that Grace’s baby may arrive earlier than planned. Also, she tells me that Grace became tearful and wanted to know who would look after her children when she goes into hospital. I thank Angela for delivering the items and reporting back, and promise to pass on her messages. I do hope Grace will be OK.

ANITA 2 Family Support Coordinator

It’s coming up to Christmas, which is a busy time for everyone, including all of us at Christian CARE. We need to make sure Grace and her family are remembered. I am in the office sorting out the wonderful Christmas food hamper donations from St John Fisher Church. Other churches and even Natasha’s fitness groups have contributed too, so I will not need to buy as much food to fill the 30 hampers we are giving to the families we support fortnightly. Our families tell us it is a special treat for them to receive all the traditional Christmas foods - a chocolate log, mince pies, Christmas pudding, even stuffing and cranberry sauce.

The phone rings and it’s Lara. She tells me that Grace’s baby boy arrived safely. Lara was so touched that she was the first person to be told about the baby. It is very sad that Grace has no family here to share the good news with. It is a huge worry for mums on their own with young children, expecting a new baby and needing to be in hospital for the birth. Lara told me that Grace had been blessed when another mum from school offered to look after the children when her time came. Lo and behold, this was a family that Christian CARE had helped in the past. Grace has named her baby boy Emmanuel, “God with us”. She asked Lara to say that they were thanking God for everyone at Christian CARE. I remind Lara to come in to the office to collect the Christmas Hamper with a token for fresh food, and the Christmas card and gifts that Sue and her team have prepared. Without these special Christmas extras, many families would not have any gifts for the children or any holiday food. I wonder how Grace will manage to cook a celebration lunch in a small, shared kitchen and then serve it in one room with all the children bouncing around. We pray our troubled families will know the peace and hope at Christmas and in the year ahead.

CRESSO 2 Office Coordinator

And now it is New Year … and not a good start! I have been called to cover the office as Michael, our Administrator, is unable to come in. His flight from Ireland has been delayed owing to the storm. There is also torrential rain in Merton and some of the roads are flooded. I arrive just as Lara, Grace’s befriender, is leaving a message on the office answer phone. She mentions that water is leaking from Grace’s ceiling and that the landlord refuses to come in and investigate. Lara is unable to contact Sylvia for advice - hence the call to our office. Unable to contact either Gillian or Sylvia myself - I ring Grace.

She is naturally anxious about the leak. She tells me that she has a bucket and a large pot on the floor to catch the water. I am concerned about their safety. I ask if water is dripping from any of the ceiling lights and Grace tells me no. She agrees to switch off light switches and the electricity if this should happen as it could become extremely dangerous. I advise her to keep the baby and children away from the leak and to protect clothes and bedding by moving them to a dry area in the room. I ask her to keep the children warm and to ring me if they are left without heat or light.

I decide to check Grace’s referral form again and notice that Environmental Health had been in touch with the family before. Owing to the emergency, I ring her former Family Support Worker who agrees to get Environmental Health to visit the family again as soon as possible. I eventually get in touch with Gillian and Sylvia and update them about Grace’s problem. Having their support is quite a relief. I finally rang Grace and tell her not to worry as Christian CARE is trying to get her help. I add that I’m looking forward to meeting her and the children at the party in February.

SUE 1 Children’s Activities Coordinator

Preparations for our New Year party are in full swing. Clare and I have already visited Wimbledon High School and recruited some 25 volunteers to help on the day. 20 others are willing to bake cakes. Toys have been sorted, wrapped and bagged ready for distribution at the end of the party.

February 2nd - Party day arrives! Grace and the children are ready in good time and buzzing with excitement. Lara’s car is too small to transport the whole family. Luckily Lizzie, our Transport Organiser, has a new recruit on her drivers’ list - he has a people carrier and she has ensured he has all the necessary instructions and the appropriate car seats for the children. At exactly 2.30pm the car pulls up outside and the family are on their way.

As the afternoon progresses the children enjoy playing party games, have their faces painted and do some craft activities while the parents have a cup of tea and a chat. Lara is able to spend time with Grace, they look so relaxed and are really enjoying each other’s company. A delicious tea of sandwiches and cakes is prepared, and a pizza delivery arrives. The pizzas have been donated by a family so grateful for the help given to them by Christian CARE many years ago. We had noticed that Grace’s little girl Ruth is going to be 4 on party day. Julia, our team member responsible for presents, has selected a suitable gift and card and purchased a birthday cake. Everyone joins in singing happy birthday and a huge round of applause can be heard as Ruth blows out her candles. After all that excitement we gather together to enjoy a show given by professional entertainers, a real treat for families who rarely have such opportunities.

It is time to go home, the children are clutching their gifts, a party bag and balloon; Grace has a Morrisons gift voucher, she is delighted, ‘We can all enjoy a treat this week’, she tells the driver as they clamber into the car. The family leave tired but very happy, hoping to renew acquaintances at other events later in the year.

SYLVIA 2 Befrienders’ Coordinator

It is now early April. During the time since our first visit to Grace, Lara has kept me informed regularly about what is happening to her through the information on the visiting sheet which she sends via our secure email system, and also by phone calls when needed. In Lara’s last report she said that Grace was very excited as she had received her Biometric card - a residence permit showing her immigration status and entitlements in the UK. It has taken 5 months for Grace to receive this card, so I can understand her excitement. Grace’s story, told in subsequent entries on the visiting sheet over the next 8 weeks reflects a rollercoaster of emotions … visiting the Job Centre to complete her Universal Credit application form on line …. 6 tense weeks of waiting till the first benefit is paid … difficult and upsetting meetings with Merton Housing who tell her to rent in the private sector ….finally she is accepted on the Merton housing register and can bid for a 3-bedroom property … but they are rarely available. All this time Lara has been there for her. I decide to phone Lara to thank her. She has shown such initiative and determination and above all amazing care for Grace. We are so fortunate to have her as a volunteer. She tells me she has a special treat planned for the family during coming school half term.

As I enjoy a rare moment of relaxation in the garden during my busy half term, Lara comes on the line. " What a glorious day!" she says." I’m in the park with Grace and the children, enjoying a picinic. It’s been an amazing outing! I’m just going to hand the phone to Grace. She has some news for you." “Hello, Miss Sylvia” she says. “I have just had a phone call from housing saying they have a 3 bedroom house that I can see next week. I am so happy I can’t stop crying. I am so blessed to be offered a larger place so quickly. I can’t thank Lara and Christian CARE enough for all the help you’ve given me.!”

NICK 1 Furniture Project Coordinator

I come into the office on a Thursday morning at the beginning of June at about 10.15am as usual. Michael greets me with his usual Irish charm and I settle down with a strong cup of coffee. He has already confirmed which of our Furniture Project volunteers are available and willing to work on the coming Monday - Chris is driving and Tony will help but Declan is visiting family in Ireland, so I will need to make up the team. Michael then produces the lists of possible deliveries and potential collections which he has prepared for our meeting. The referral that stands out for next week is for a women called Grace. From the form I can see that she is on her own with 4 children and due to move to a 3 bedroom housing association property in Mitcham. She was given the keys 2 days ago and must move by Monday - and she has NO furniture. I realise that the priority will be a set of bunk beds and a bed for Mum. We could also provide a table and chairs and some chests of drawers, I think. It is always a challenge to match requests with offers of furniture and the stock we hold in our 3 garage store rooms. When we’ve drawn up a schedule for the following Monday, Michael will have included separate instructions for both Mary-Jane to put together a set of kitchen equipment and Barbara who will have sets of bedding, including duvets and pillows, for the delivery team to pick up from her porch - all packed neatly in bags with labels to ensure we know who they are for.

A faithful, battered white Transit van, kept by Christ Church Colliers Wood’s Vicarage is used by the team which meets up on the day at around 10am. We begin by visiting each of the garages off Grand Drive where we keep our stock and load up with what is needed. Meeting each client is an important moment. Each is different and each will have their own story to tell. The delivery to Grace like all the others requires some degree of initiative and flexibility, brute force and ignorance to get everything through the front door and up the stairs.

The bunk beds as usual prove awkward to re-assemble - if only we had a specialist DIY team! Everything else is routine. However it has been an exceptionally long day and it is approaching 5.30pm before we finally leave. . We do so with some concern over the multitude of black bags and general chaos. I resolve to try and find some of the items still sorely needed, at least some rugs and a sofa.

BARBARA 2 Baby, Children’s and Household Project Coordinator

Lara phones me to say that she has dropped in to see Grace in her new home and to deliver the invitation for the whole family to join the summer outing to Littlehampton. She tells me that none of them, not even Grace, have seen the sea before. Grace has mentioned that the children have out grown their summer clothes from last year, and that they really need some new things especially if they are to go to Littlehampton. CC receives many donations of children’s clothes in good condition from local families, for children ages ranging from 3-11 years. The clothes are sorted, washed at 60 C and then stored in labelled bags to make it easier to select the right size and the right style to match the requests from families. Fortunately, recent donations have come in that match the favourite colours of all 3 of Grace’s children, Daniel, Deborah and Ruth, so everyone can look forward to the seaside outing wearing their new smart summer clothes.

NICK 2 Furniture Project Coordinator

Once I’ve visited a client and seen for myself what is possible, the size of the rooms and what is needed by the family I’m in a much better position to judge what from our store or from potential donations I can offer them and my mind is then receptive to spotting things which are suitable.

Luckily I have a call from an executor keen to clear a flat for a relative of one of our supporters. There are a number of almost new items which I could see would be ideal for Grace. So on our next schedule we book her in again.

Ciaran joins me on the van this time and we load up our newly donated sofa and wardrobe plus some items from our stock which will help, like a rug and some spare carpet pieces

It’s an INSET day at school so the children are at home. When we arrive, Deborah and Ruth show us their room, beaming with satisfaction over the bunk beds we have already supplied. Daniel is very interested in my efforts to reassemble the wardrobe I have dismantled to get it up the stairs. And he proves a useful assistant. To my surprise, the whole place is now so tidy. I am amazed at the transformation. It had been chaos. I am so impressed. A home to be proud of! When we finish our work, Grace makes us some tea and Ciaran proves amazingly adept at amusing the baby.

SUE 2 Children’s Activities Coordinator

Clare has been busy for weeks organising our day out to Littlehampton. Now 6 July has come . The coach arrives at Merton Park Baptist Church, is loaded up and we are off to collect everyone. We pick up Grace and her children in Mitcham together with several other families who are waiting very patiently … ‘All aboard’… and we are on our way. It is a long journey but well worth it, the sun is shining. As soon as we arrive, we unpack and gather together to enjoy a picnic lunch. Then it is straight off to the beach. Some of our party have never been to the sea before and can’t wait to jump into the water; others grab a bucket and spade and head to the beach to build castles and collect shells.

The fairground awaits: each family is given tickets for the rides and money for ice-creams. Even Grace has a go on the dodgems, it is a real opportunity to forget all her worries and anxieties and just let her hair down. After tea we all pile back onto the coach still buzzing with excitement. Grace’s son, Daniel, is overheard saying: “That was the best day of my life.”

Daniel is going to Falcon camp this year and has been able to spend time with some of the other children who will be going with him. Last year I had been an escort on the minibus bringing them home, so we have many exciting things to share with him - the magic of staying in the countryside, everyday packed full of outside adventures and activities and at the end of the week everyone waving goodbye to new friends, hoping to be back next year. However later this summer the whole family discover that they don’t always have to travel as far as Littlehampton and Kent - there are delights to be enjoyed much nearer to home.

GILLIAN 2 CARE Coordinator

It’s a Thursday in August, Sue has invited befrienders to bring their families to Morden Hall Park. This is a new venture and we are pleased that 8 families have joined us. Most of them had no idea that this gem of a place even existed and that it is all free. I watch Grace with her children in the adventure playground - they seem so happy. I see her sharing her picnic with another family who have forgotten to bring any food. I think how far she has come in the past year. But I also know that the journey ahead will be hard.

As we all move off after lunch to the go through the Wetlands on the way to Deen City Farm, I catch up with Grace pushing baby Emmanuel in the buggy. She wants to say ‘Thank you’ for everything that Christian CARE has done for her family. … finding Lara for her, all the food Anita sent, the clothes Barbara packed for the children, Cresso comforting her when the roof leaked, all the furniture Nick brought … the party and the outing Sue organised. “God bless you all,” she says. "I do not know what I would have done without you. Whatever you do, whoever it is who comes to help me you are all doing something special. I began to learn what it was that day Sylvia first brought Lara to see me. God loves us, doesn’t he? And he wants us to love him. But what Christian CARE has shown me is that God calls us to give his love away … and that is what I am going to do.

Bert Hyde, our founder, “One of God’s diamonds”
©2020 Christian CARE Association Registered Charity No: 1044099
Header photograph of Morden, courtesy of Merton Council