As a young single mum, Maria Smith never left the house for weeks on end because her confidence was so low.
Today, eight years later, she is happy and outgoing and working for the organisation that helped rebuild her life.
As a family support practitioner for Action for Children, she now visits families with young children in some of the poorest parts of Daventry, providing vital support to parents who are struggling to live on benefits or low incomes.
Maria says: “When I go into people’s homes I know how they feel when they’ve had a new baby and the problems they face. It’s tough out there.
“Many find the cost of living so expensive and one of the things we do is to help them with paying the gas bill or the TV licence, and working out a budget with them so they can live within their means.”
Maria grew up in the Southbrook area of Daventry and went to live and work in Cornwall after leaving school. She became pregnant but was in a domestic violent relationship – her only option was to return to her home town.
“I lost all my confidence when I came back home,” she recalls. “I didn’t leave the house for the first six weeks. I couldn’t even walk around the estate. Looking back now I was probably suffering from post-natal depression as well.”
A health visitor coaxed her to visit one of the local children’s centres run by Action for Children.
“When I went along to have my baby son weighed I was feeling very nervous. But I was greeted at the door by a member of staff who made me feel so welcome and stayed with me for the whole time I was there. If it hadn’t been for this person, I don’t think I would have ever gone back.”
That act of kindness was a turning point in Maria’s life. Through the centre she enrolled on courses and studied for qualifications, giving her the confidence to successfully apply for her current job.
Maria, now a happily married mother of two, says: “Going to the children’s centre that day literally changed my life, which is why I am so passionate about giving something back. This is why I do this job.”
Last week, government figures revealed that 2.3 million children in the UK, that’s almost one in six, live in relative poverty. This is defined as living in a household with an income below 60 per cent of the national average. Across Daventry district, nearly 16 per cent of children live in a household which, after paying for housing costs, heating, food and essential clothing, has no disposable income.
Under a contract with Northamptonshire County Council, the services delivered by Action for Children at its five children’s centres across the district are free to families with children aged under five, a lifeline for people in some of the area’s most socially deprived wards.
Hundreds of families are supported every year. The majority are referred by health professionals or social workers, but the centres have an open-door policy and anybody is welcome to walk through the door and ask for help.
One user of its services is a mother of two who has lived in Daventry all her life.
She says: “They have been of great support to me.
“I struggled as a first-time parent but they helped us through the issues we were facing. They improved our family life and everyone was happier
“If they hadn’t been there, I don’t know what I would have done to be honest.
“The fact that all its services are free was a great help. Not everybody can afford to go to other places where you would have to pay, especially those with more than one child.”
As well as giving advice on making ends meet and dealing with debt, Action for Children runs ‘cook and eat’ courses in partnership with Daventry Food Bank. It helps families in many other ways: health clinics, antenatal classes, support for victims of domestic violence, support for children with disabilities, parenting programmes, and a comprehensive range of workshops, drop-in sessions and courses.
Sue Connor, children’s services manager, says: “Many people still think of children’s centres as places where parents drop off their children to play. That has all changed. They don’t realise the range of services available to them, from financial advice to emotional support. We target our services in areas where they are most needed, and we know when we are making a difference when we see families thrive and move forward with their lives.”