Bringing up a child without family close by can be a difficult task and the demand for honorary uncles, aunts and grandparents is outstripping the supply. Do you have what it takes to be a mentor?
When her daughter Ariella was born, Carolyn Hyams realised the truth of the saying: “It takes a village to raise a child”. With most of her family living overseas or interstate, coping with a young baby was tough and the Sydney mum felt isolated. She also worried that her daughter, now aged two, was missing out because her grandparents lived so far away. “We really felt their absence. Ariella doesn’t know how to relate to seniors.” Carolyn’s situation is not unusual. People are more removed from their extended families than they used to be. Factors like marital breakdown, the rising number of older parents and workers moving abroad or interstate for employment have taken their toll. In a bid to help people reconnect with traditional family values, programs like Aunties and Uncles and Family InSight are putting young people in touch with older members of the community. But programs are limited, and the majority are targeted at vulnerable families with issues such as mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse.
Carolyn takes the plunge After drawing a blank on a suitable option for her daughter, Carolyn launched the Adopt a Grandparent website last year. Initially she was hoping to connect seniors with families seeking grandparents. But it was complicated. There were security issues and working with children checks to consider. “I would have had to employ someone to help with administration and I needed funding for something like that.” However, after discovering a program run through a childcare centre in New South Wales, Carolyn realised this could be the answer many families were looking for. The Tree House Early Childhood Centre, owned by the local workers’ club in Revesby, runs a volunteer program with seniors from the club. Each week the seniors spend time with the children, telling them stories and teaching them skills like sewing and cooking.
“Staff and volunteers who work at preschools have to get the working with children check done anyway, so the schools are already experienced at handling this process,” explains Carolyn. “That’s why the concept is so fantastic.”
Carolyn, a marketing strategy manager, is now busy trying to get childcare associations and preschools on board. “It’s quite challenging because I’m only one person. But a lot of people
are interested,” she says. “Wherever there’s a childcare centre or preschool there are RSLs, bowling clubs and retirement villages. It gives older people a sense of purpose to be a part
of something like this.”
One Tree House regular is Julie Brunt, a 66-year-old local retiree. With no children of her own, she says spending time at the preschool makes her day. “I needed to do something to help out. I do a lot of things for me, like classes and social outings.” Julie tells the children stories or plays with them. “When I go in the door they come running up calling my name. And when I’m leaving I get a lot of cuddles and sloppy kisses,” she laughs.
The Family InSight initiative
In the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, many families have moved to industrial centres like Maitland to work in manufacturing or mining. It is here that Family InSight trains volunteers who provide much-needed support and encouragement to local parents, many of whom are isolated from their families. Typically the volunteers are retired or working part-time. “It can be fairly demanding,” says manager Sue Dark. “One of the most important things they do is help
families connect with their community.” Recruiting volunteers where they’re most needed is a challenge. “Some people are afraid to get involved with someone else’s family,” she says.
Aunties and Uncles a winner – for now
Also in New South Wales, Aunties and Uncles runs an early intervention mentoring program that links disadvantaged children with ‘aunties’ or ‘uncles’ from their local community. The program is in demand, but the organisation is doing it tough. Service manager Sue Banks says the program, which relies on state government funding and donations, is in financial crisis thanks to the recent global downturn. With its budget cut it’s likely to fold within months, leaving nearly 300 children without mentors.
It’s a bleak prospect when families like Linda Hiley’s depend so much on their support. Linda, 47, suffers from chronic depression and anxiety. Worried about the effects on her children, she contacted Aunties and Uncles about mentoring her two daughters. “I’m not socially motivated so I don’t take them out except to church. I’ve got five children and they’ve all picked up on my anxiety.” Sheree, 9, and Tara, 12, spend one weekend each month with Rhonda and Maurice Higgins, who live in a neighbouring suburb. The couple organises activities for the girls and take them to barbeques and the movies. “They love it and it makes me feel like less of a failure. They get to have happy outings instead of stressful ones,” Linda says.
For Rhonda, having young children in the house again is a joy. The couple tragically lost two of their daughters in a car accident several years ago. With eldest daughter Chloe now living away from home, Rhonda and Maurice were keen to help other families. “We live on two-and-a-half acres and we have chooks and a veggie garden. The girls love being out here.”
Rhonda, 52, and Maurice, 50, have always been active in the community, getting involved in everything from World Youth Day to hosting the South African netball team. Rhonda says working with children helps keep her young. “It’s so rewarding and it’s such a good feeling knowing you can give another family a hand. There are families out there who desperately
Aunties and Uncles runs an early intervention mentoring program based on an extended family model of ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’.
Family InSight is a volunteer-based organisation supporting families with young children in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales.
Big Brothers Big Sisters is a mentoring program providing young people who need additional support, guidance and friendship, with a mentor, who is a long-term positive role model.
For more information on Carolyn Hyam’s Adopt a Grandparent program, visit www.adoptagrandparent.com.au
Whether you’re a potential surrogate grandparent, or a family looking for some support, Find a Grandparent can help put you in touch with those who need you.