Tuesday 21 March 2017

New Horizons and New Starts with Comic Relief

The table is strewn with packs of Monster Munch and Haribos.  The smell of acetone from the nail polish remover burns my nostrils. A gaggle of teenage girls paint their nails, and apply make-up, expertly contouring and checking their handiwork in compact mirrors.  There's light-hearted banter and chatter filling the room.

This could be any teenage girl's bedroom in the country.  Except it's not.

I feel slightly uncomfortable and intrusive as I'm lurking in the background of the weekly Women's Group that takes place at the New Horizon Centre near Kings Cross, especially when I learn the golden rule: What happens in Women's Group, stays in Women's Group.

Suddenly, the girls decide that they will go around the room, taking it in turns to each pay each other a compliment.  They comment on each other's beautiful eyes, their smiles, their open nature.  Then they turn to Hazz.

Hazz is the Women's Worker, a full-time employee funded by Comic Relief.  It's the first time I realise that she's an employee rather than one of the group. The session is being led not by her, but by two of the young women in the group.  They cajole her into saying something nice about each of them, and without missing a beat, Hazz speaks eloquently about positive attributes each young woman has - whether it's incredible artistic talents, a non-judgemental attitude or complete reliability and dedication, it's clear she knows these girls inside out.

I know if I'd heard these affirmations said about me, I'd leave the session feeling a million dollars, but it's only after, after we hear these young people's stories it dawns on me what a lifeline these positive comments can be. For young women who have had their self-confidence and feeling of self-worth systematically sapped from them, this boost is incredibly important.

Women's Worker Hazz - left

After the session, we meet Farrah*.  She is breathtakingly beautiful, and if life had dealt her a different hand you could easily see her as a famous young British actress treading the boards on the West End.  She secured a place at a prestigious youth theatre group but unfortunately her alcoholism put an end to that.

She started drinking as a young teenage girl, like many of her peers.  However, coming from a devoutly religious family, this was not accepted and she was soon ostracised.  The drinking spiralled and she'd often go missing for days on end. Her increased drinking lead her to mix with the wrong crowd, and she found herself in dangerous situations. 

And then one day she was raped.

Her bravery talking about this was incredible.  Clearly still raw she didn't go into details, except to say that it never resulted in a criminal prosecution for the perpetrator.  The case was dropped.  It is agonisingly difficult to comprehend this injustice and the lack of closure this has given her.  The distrust of the law and the feelings of self-doubt.  

At her lowest ebb, she found New Horizons and with the support of staff like Hazz, she is putting her life back together.  A young girl, only a few years older than my daughter, let down by every establishment that should have been there to help her - her family, school, social services, the police...

The experiences this young woman has had in her short life are heartbreaking - death threats from her family, hospitalisation from suicide attempts, a brutal sexual assault and homelessness.  If it hadn't been for New Horizons, she genuinely doesn't know where she'd be right now.

But with help to get away from the environment she'd found herself in, support to find accommodation, counselling to deal with her mental trauma, and the re-building of her self esteem, she's now completing a course to start her own business as a make-up artist and has been sober for over a month. Her eyes shine bright with determination, and you can tell, she's turned a corner.

Senior Youth Worker, Steven offers a friendly and non-judgemental welcome to all new visitors

Then we meet Polly* and Lucy*. What's clear, is that each young women has their own story, but also just how easily it could happen to anyone. Without the support of a loving family, these incidents can be the catalyst for a life to quickly spiral out of control.  Lucy tells that she "owes more to the workers at New Horizon that she does to her own mother".

Lucy is a strong-willed and incredibly likeable person.  She's feisty and passionate and you can see how, when not channelled positively it led her to scrapes with the police.  She feels sure that if it weren't for Hazz, she'd be on the streets doing drugs right now.  Instead, with the right guidance and nurturing, she's now leading some sessions at Women's Group and is passionately standing up for women's rights.  She talks about how young girls are so often bombarded with cat-calls and derogatory comments in the street or in a bar, but that behaviour is not tolerated here.  All the visitors to the centre must treat each other with respect, and not only does this help the female visitors feel comfortable and safe, but it shows the young men that this behaviour is wrong and that women must be treated equally.  She's a feisty feminist ready to take on the injustices of the world.

Hazz has been working at the centre for 6 years.  Her three-year full-time contract is funded by Comic Relief.  She's modest when it comes to the success she's had here and the incredible impact she has made on people's lives. Without any judgement at all, she's always ready to listen and is one of those people who just always seems to know exactly the right thing to say.

The wide range of activities and life skills workshops on offer

The holistic approach taken by the staff compliments the practical help offered at the centre.  From housing benefit advice to serving hot meals and offering a laundry service, this is a lifeline to many.  Without your generous support of Comic Relief's fundraising, these kind of places couldn't exist, and the final safety net for vulnerable young people might disappear.

* Names changed

Special thanks to Ali for organising the visit, to all the staff at New Horizons and the inspiring young women who allowed us into their sanctuary. Check out the other posts from Chocolate is not the only fruit, Being Mrs C, Mad Mum of 7 and Missy B and Family. If you'd like to donate to this year's joint blogger effort of Team Honk for Comic Relief, please do so here.

Monday 20 March 2017

Share a photo, Give a Meal to Trussell Trust Food Banks

It's easy to take for granted how fortunate I am.  There's always food in the fridge and the freezer, and even at the end of the month, there's always plenty of staples in the cupboard to cobble together meals. There are times when I've had a busy day and am too tired to cook and I can just pick up the phone and order a takeaway.  Or if we have something to celebrate, we'll think nothing of going out to dinner.

It's easy to forget that not everyone is this fortunate.  Today, in 2017, the use of food banks in the UK is still on the rise.  Food insecurity is a massive issue in the UK.

  • More than 8 million Brits live in households that struggle to put food on the table
  • 4.7 million regularly go a day without eating
  • 3 million people in the UK are malnourished
  • Food poverty in the UK is rising at alarming rates
  • The lowest income households in the UK only have on average of £3.00 per day to spend on food
  • Studies show a lack of flavor in diets reduces energy levels and creates negative thoughts.

These statistics, while shocking, are not so hard to understand when you think that most of us are only a pay check away from finding ourselves in this situation.  Family circumstances can change in a heart beat, and it's frighteningly easy for people to find themselves calling on a food bank for a crisis parcel.  It could be a redundancy, sudden ill health, a relationship breakdown, a mix up with benefits or debt problems...

Knorr have started a campaign which is running until midnight on 27th March 2017, where you can help in such an easy way, why wouldn't you do it?  Simply share a photo on Instagram, a black and white photo of your meal using the hashtag #FlavourForAll and Knorr will donate the value of a meal to the Trussell Trust to help someone who is suffering food insecurity.

If you need more persuasion, please do take a look at some of their videos which show just what a difference the Trussell Trust make.  Not just giving emergency food parcels, but offering a friendly face, a cup of tea and a chat, a non-judgemental ear to listen and practical advice and signposting to deal with the root causes.

Why don't you share your meal today and help give a nourishing meal to someone who needs it?

Tuesday 7 March 2017

If You Go Down To The Woods Today...Gruffalo Spotting With the New App

Have you heard what's happening at forests up and down the land?  For several years now, the Forestry Commission have been in partnership with the well-loved Julia Donaldson tale The Gruffalo and Magic Light Production (makers of the animated film).  They have Gruffalo sculptures hidden in the woods to discover and trails to follow, but now, for the first time they have embraced state-of-the-art technology and bring us a new augmented reality app to bring the Gruffalo and his forest friends to life.

Admittedly, this new app is aimed at younger audiences (pre-schoolers and early-years) and at nearly nine I wondered what Ruby would think of it.  But it's such a dearly loved story, ingrained on this generation's psyche and the added benefit of using an app really appealed!  We are an outdoorsy family, so I had some qualms about bringing technology out on our walk, but actually, it worked really well and enhanced the experience rather than being a distraction.

We tried out the trail at nearby Wendover Woods (you can check your nearest forest and launch dates here). You can purchase a pack to accompany the trail from the cafe or the Go Ape Centre for £3 and although it's not vital for following the trail, it will give you items to help you on your quest, as well as extra materials to extend the fun such as animal activity sheets and fact cards.

We visited on a Saturday morning and it was reasonably busy, but with everyone going at their own pace there was plenty of space and we weren't rushed.  If you're going with pre-schoolers I'd recommend trying to go in off-peak times such as during a school day.

First stop was the cafe for vital re-fuelling - hats of the Cafe in the Woods for excellent gluten-free carrot cake!  You can purchase your pack here.

Cafe in the Woods make a mean hot chocolate.

A short stroll over to the play area, and you soon spot signs for the start of the trail.  This first section was very very muddy and we did see a few parents with buggies struggling - I'd recommend an all-terrain pushchair.  But after the initial mud-fest the rest of the trail was on well-maintained pathways and easy to negotiate.  A word of warning - this first short section is shared use with mountain-bikers and they can come tearing round so keep little ones and dogs on a short leash!

Clear, easy to spot signposting along the way

As you reach fork in the path, the mountain bikers go off on their own way, and you have the path to yourself.  The trail has lots of signs and clues to find along the way, indicating which of the characters you'll find next - will it be mouse, or owl or snake?  It was nice that you didn't need your phone until a little way along the trail when you come to the first augmented reality sign. It gave us chance to settle into the forest, enjoy the colours and smells and relax.

The bold, colourful signage is easy to spot, making the way and giving clues

While some children were racing on from one sign to the next, others were ambling, stopping for a splash in a muddy puddle or to pick up a pretty leaf. You really can go at your own pace.

The trail took us through parts of the forest we'd not explored before, past beautiful vistas and mossy glades and we all really enjoyed just being outdoors in nature on what was the first real spring-like day of the year.  We heard a woodpecker's hammering echoing around the forest and found huge piles of autumn leaves to kick through.

The whole trail at Wendover was about 2km but it didn't feel like it to us - I guess littler legs might feel it though?

Once we reached our first Gruffalo Spotter sign and were able to turn on the app, we were all captivated by the magical animation.  It was fabulous to be able to take shots via the app of Ruby with the characters, and of course, you are then able to share them on social media.

The animation is magical

The app is fairly straightforward to operate, instructions and guiders on the screen show you where to point it (tip - you have to be fairly close).

How the screen looks in app, with guiders showing where to point

Each time you find a character and bring it to life, you are rewarded with a fact card on the app - rather like a Top Trump card, giving details of the creature's attributes.  There are suggestions of activities to do aswell - can you stomp like a Gruffalo?  And at the end you earn a 'certificate'.

It looks as though each creature can only be animated once, with only one child that wasn't a problem for us, but I guess if you have siblings you may want to download it to more than one phone if you can.  I think if we want to do the trail again, we'll have to delete the app and reinstall it for another time.

We saw lots of children and parents enjoying the app, it takes a bit of practice to position yourself in the best place for a photo with the creature, but it was great fun.  Some younger children may struggle with the concept - they are standing in front of a sign and not seeing what the phone operator sees, so it's worth switching between adult and child having a go.

Enter Gruffalo stage right!
Be warned - he's HUGE. You can't even see Ruby hiding behind him!
We thought this new technology was a great addition to a forest day out and I'm sure some less outdoorsy people could be tempted into the woods with it. The app is free to download (just search Gruffalo Spotter), you don't need any data or connection to use it once you're in the forest, but because signal isn't always great in the woods, remember to download it before your visit.


Find out more on the Forestry Commission website.

Disclosure: We were sent an activity pack for the trail.

Country Kids