A FareShare of support from Cyrenians

My friend Kathy works for Cyrenians, a charity that serves those on the edge; working with the homeless and vulnerable to transform their lives. Until recently she was based at the FareShare depot in Leith; Cyrenians runs the Central and South East Scotland franchise. Kathy has always talked about her work with such sincerity that I jumped at the chance of a tour of the depot.

The operation takes up two units, one on each side of the road. I arrive amidst the hustle and bustle of crates of food being unpacked, vans being loaded and tools being carried from the distribution unit across to the brand new ‘Flavour and Haver’ cooking School.

Having worked in a supermarket many moons ago, the first thing that strikes me is the similarities to a standard food warehouse. It’s a smaller version, but nevertheless the processes are clearly the same. Food is donated to Cyrenians from a variety of sources. Mostly it’s supermarkets and the odd restaurant chain but the Gleamer movement (people who take unharvested produce from the ground and ensure that it’s not wasted by passing it onto food banks) have also donated some of the crates of food today.

Every day is different. This being Burns Night the fridges are crammed with turnips and sprouts, along with a generous donation of partridge from M&S. I was also surprised to see lots of Nando’s chicken. A number of restaurants around the city kindly donate to FareShare on a regular basis. The quality and variety of food was impressive.

This is not your standard food bank, where bags of food are given to individual households. Groups, otherwise known as Community Food Members (CFM’s), apply to become a  FareShare member. The foundation principle of FareShare is that the food is distributed to charities and community projects working with vulnerable people or providing social good. Once approved, they pay a small membership fee which varies depending on the size and requirements of the group. As a social enterprise, the fee is simply to cover the cost of the warehouse operation.

There are currently 117 CFM’s receiving food which would otherwise be wasted. Community Centres in areas of deprivation, soup kitchens, lunch clubs for elderly people who would otherwise struggle to find a pal to eat a home cooked meal with. One school club on the distribution list receives enough food to cover 564 breakfasts, 300 lunches and 515 snacks per week. It’s mind-boggling to consider the variety of tables that this food will cross, the thousands of tummies which will be satisfied as a result of this incredible organisation.

Relationships are at the core of all work within the community – I think that’s why I love to be around this kind of environment. It’s all about the people. From the staff at Cyrenians striving to foster partnerships with the food donors (and don’t be fooled – Tesco or M&S don’t just swing by with thousands of pounds worth of food without years of leg work), to the people in the community groups who ask for and cook the food, to the volunteers who are the backbone of this operation.

I spoke with some of the volunteers during my visit, and they are rightly proud of the work that they do. One man has volunteered with Cyrenians for 17 years and 6 months. He told me that he would be dead without the support of the staff team or the motivation to do something different. A recovering addict, he is almost a full-timer here and has received training to do a variety of jobs within the warehouse. In fact 85% of the volunteers are supported, or have been, regarded as vulnerable adults.

They have experienced homelessness, addiction, the criminal justice system. They’re now part of something positive – from working in the warehouse to taking cookery classes in the all-new community kitchen across the road.

Kathy talks to me about how Cyrenians receives what is regarded by the donor as waste food, but they see it as surplus food. They then turn it into “fuel for the community.” It’s some community. Each week, the hard graft from Cyrenians feeds over 7,000 people in the Lothian area (a total of 35 tonnes of food each month).

Thanks to the people involved in this food chain 7,000 people have something fresh and nutritious to eat, and someone to eat with.

HOW YOU CAN HELP:

Cyrenians FareShare are always increasing the number of incredible community projects they serve. If you can think of a community project that could benefit from membership, please spread the word!

Alternatively if you are looking to volunteer, there are always opportunities in a variety of roles.

  • Drivers
  • Packers / sorters
  • Admin
  • Marketing and press volunteers

APPLY TO BE A VOLUNTEER NOW

Kids Love Clothes

If you are looking for an opportunity to volunteer, look no further. Kids Love Clothes are desperately seeking people to give a small bit of time each month to learn how to pack gift bags for families in Lothian who need support to clothe their kids. Read on to find out more about this incredible venture…

Picture the scene. It’s Christmas Eve, and somewhere in Edinburgh a woman is thrown out of her own home by her husband. All she has with her are the clothes she is standing in – and her two children by her side. They don’t have any belongings, toys or games, or even a change of clothes for the kids. Thankfully, Kids Love Clothes were on hand to support this family and they woke up on Christmas Day to a wardrobe of clothes for both children, along with toys and games. Kids Love Clothes are supporting many mum’s who, through a variety of circumstances, are not able to provide a basic wardrobe of clothes for their kids.

Across the Lothians.

In 2018.

When my son turned eighteen months I packed every item of clothing that he had ever worn into a huge box.  I was going to keep it FOREVER. Just because. Then a friend told me about Kids Love Clothes, the initiative which helps local families with young children living in Edinburgh and the Lothians by providing a much-needed bag of clothes for their children.With 882 kids receiving support in 2016 and a staggering 1,800 in 2017, it was time to let go of my son’s often barely worn items. It struck me that I’m probably not the only parent with a box of goodies gathering dust, so I put out a call on a local Facebook group asking people for donations.

One week in and I’ve already collected three car loads. As my hall looks increasingly like the back room in a charity shop I arranged to meet Fiona, the founder of Kids Love Clothes, over at the drop-off unit last night with the first car load. I don’t know what I was expecting to find but as I drove down a country lane on a cold, dark January night and found myself surrounded by disused barns I regretted being in the middle of the Dexter box set back at home.

Thankfully Fiona and her dog, Maisie, were there to greet me. As they walked me through the empty farm buildings and into the Kids Love Clothes barn my senses are struck with first the brightness of the electric light, followed by a sea of clothes and bags and then the smell – oh, that fresh, happy, summery smell of recently laundered clothes multiplied many, many times.

Over steaming hot coffee, Fiona explains to me how the charity came about. In 2009, after being invited to an adults clothes swap with friends, she began to think about how quickly children grow out of clothes and how draining that is for parents who can’t afford constant replacements. This led to her thinking more widely about mums who can’t afford any clothes for their kids. How do they get a summer and a winter wardrobe for their children? After nurturing the idea for some time she decided to try it out. It began with friends donating their children’s clothes and then one day a friend gave her a box containing every item of clothing that her eight-year-old daughter had ever worn (so it’s not just me then). Kids Love Clothes was born.

By 2013, the small operation based in Fiona’s spare room transferred to the barn that I now find myself in, and had become a registered charity. Everything about this is impressive. Fiona’s determination (along with the hard work of Jules, Linda, Denise, Christine and Lara, plus a further 100 volunteers who collect, sort and iron) and the abundant generosity of people across the Lothian region who are donating bags and bags of clothes along with bucket loads of their time. The clothes are often brand new, still with their tags on. One elderly woman uses her £100 heating allowance each year to buy clothes which she then donates. Consider that one bag of winter clothes may contain items to the value of approximately £450 – £500, donations such as these are gratefully received.

As I make my way back down the country lane, I realise that Kids Love Clothes is much more than a jumble of tops and trousers. If a mother has her pride and a sense of dignity, she is more likely to find and keep a job. She is more likely to engage with her community and take her child to places. A child who is wearing a warm coat and comfortable shoes is more likely to listen in class. This is about staying warm but it is also about education, employment, community and empowerment. It’s about providing the best start in life for hundreds of children.

The numbers:

  • It takes roughly six hours to do one bag
  • One gift bag has clothes for one child for between 7 – 10 days
  • A winter bag includes –
    • 3 pairs of pyjamas
    • 1 dressing gown
    • 4 or 5 dresses (and a party dress)
    • Hats, scarves and gloves, vests, pants (up to a certain age)
    • 7 – 10 fleeces
    • 7 – 10 long sleeve tops
    • 5 leggings or trousers
    • Shoes
    • Toys and books
  • If needed, a basic school uniform can also be provided

How to get involved: 

I’m going to pull together a group of friends to go along to sort and pack bags. If you’d like to do the same, please contact Kids Love Clothes.

Email Fiona: info@kidsloveclothes.co.uk or message Jules via Facebook

How it all ended

I knew then that she would die.

The afternoon that I got the call had been one filled with hope. Viewings for two flats, potential new homes for me and my husband and my son. A walk down to the prom for an ice cream and a scoot and lungfuls of fresh spring air.

We were almost ready to head to the pizza restaurant which was intended to mark the beginning of our Easter holiday when the text came:

CAL ME.

The absence of the second ‘L’ still bothers me today. After everything that we have been through. The tests and the worry and the life changing moments. The death, a funeral and the box of burnt up bones that now sits in my home with my beautiful Mam’s name engraved into the top. And yet, the missing ‘L’ still niggles.

I’d barely time to wonder why I should call when she phoned my husband’s mobile. Before I knew it I was driving to hers, worried about what I would find. Worried about what had already gone from my life.

Standing by her bed, watching my Mam drift in and out of consciousness, I knew then that she would die. She told me not to phone the doctor. For the first time, I knew that I would.

I called and I waited. I tried to help, and I tried to steady myself for what was to come.

The pizza went unordered, the Easter holiday abandoned.

Little did I know that it would take 66 days, but she did die. So much of who she was had died that night in her flat, nine weeks before her final breath. And yet so much of us, as a mother and a daughter, remained.

My Mam. On 13th June 2017. She died.

Just as one day I will throw her ashes into the winds  I will use this blog to scatter some of my thoughts and feelings on something so surreal, so truly horrible and yet so disturbingly life-affirming. I hope neither blows back into my face!

I’ve been advised by friends and professionals that I need to sit still and just be with my grief. I find this incredibly difficult to do but when I achieve it, I also find that it really does help. It is in the stillness where I meet my Mam and it’s also where I confront my grief head on. For every person who tells me that she wouldn’t want me to be miserable (and this is true), I want to shake them and tell them just how wonderful she was and how much she deserves to be missed, to be yearned for.

Be brave, Scottish Government, and we can change the lives of Scottish women

There has been extensive press coverage regarding pregnancy and maternity discrimination today. It’s as if the world has suddenly woken up to the fact that women are losing their jobs for having children. Except it hasn’t woken up. Nothing is being said today that wasn’t being said in 2013.

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Since 4th July I’ve been trying to secure a place at the table for the Scottish Government’s Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination Working Group. I contacted the Chair of the group, Jamie Hepburn MSP, who replied personally to me within an hour.

“I’ll pass this onto my ministerial office and they’ll have a look at it and see if it might be possible for us to meet, or how you can feed into the working group that I will be chairing.”

I was cock-a-hoop. After all, whilst my book research is exploring the issues of pregnancy and maternity discrimination internationally, my main focus of research has been in Scotland and the UK as a whole. I have heard many stories from across Scotland. I’m gathering together the ‘mistakes’ made, the lessons taken from the experience of discrimination, the moments when the women realised they had been pulled into a game in which they had not been informed of the rules.

I’m about to go into my next phase of research where I explore the impacts of positive maternity policy on small businesses and what can be done about that without ruining the experience of early motherhood (and all that goes with that for the entire family and society as a whole).

I couldn’t wait to share this with Scottish Government. I want to make real change. The change that government’s talk about and that the women that I represent are desperate to see.

A month later I received a reply from the ministerial office that was polite and encouraging in tone, and if it wasn’t the fact I am writing a book on the issues it may have been informative. They have welcomed my offer of input, although they tell me lots of people have offered to help. They’re working with EHRC Scotland which could be brilliant, but I know women who have reached out to EHRC and have been completely ignored.

My main concern is that the letter includes some of the ideas that they outlined in the initial press release about the Working Group. Drafting employer policies, guidance for reporting on pregnant staff and lots of other dry, ultimately well-meaning but useless ideas that ensure the power remains in the hands of the employer, not the employee. Come on Scottish Government, we have guidelines. They’re called laws. They’re being ignored. And believe me, it’s often at the point that women point out to their employer that they feel that they’re being bullied that things really turn sour.

I went back to Scottish Government outlining my fears that they are going to play it safe when Scottish women are waiting on them to be brave. Nine days ago I received a reply informing me that my concerns and hopes have been noted, which will be taken on board as the group’s remit develops. In response to my email where I shared the fact that one of Scotland’s biggest institutions is repeatedly and systematically kicking women out of their jobs, I was told that the group is not yet at the stage of considering case studies.

It seems to me that the group has been formed (although I can’t find out who is included in the group), and nothing will change. I urge the Scottish Government to include me fully; if nothing else I can stress-test their recommendations and provide a voice for the women who have already told me their stories (no details that would reveal the identity of interviewees will ever be passed from me to anyone). But I also think I can offer more than that. I have identified key points in the testimonies I have gathered that reveal a common roadmap for pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and more importantly how we break it.

By focusing on these areas – the points in pregnancy where the employer pushes the boundaries of the law, the key times when women begin to lose their power – we can make a difference. And surely that’s what Scotland does best. The brave bits.

Today I spoke to a Scottish journalist who suggested that women who don’t speak up about the discrimination they’ve been subjected to aren’t brave. I beg to differ. I now ask the Scottish Government to be brave, too.

I am appealing to Scottish Government to let me help. Together we can explore the areas where we have to think differently to get the job done. It’s never been a better time for women in Scottish politics, and my ambition for Scotland is that there has never been a greater time to aspire to work and raise a family.

We’re not there yet. It’s time to be brave.

Nursery Eve

My three-year-old son goes to nursery for the first time tomorrow. I have been wishing for this day to come for the past three, maybe six, months. The challenge has been tougher than I had expected. And yet now that Nursery Eve is here,  I’m wishing for just a little more time to have him close.

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Truthfully it is time. It’s been time for a wee while now. My treasure hunts, art activities, mammoth reading sessions, days out, play dates and baking aren’t quite enough for him now and finally, after three and a half years, it’s not quite enough for me.Yet for all I have craved for an inch of the flat to call my own, and the “Why’s?” have made my bones itch with frustration, I am going to miss him. I’m going to miss us.

When I embarked upon my maternity leave back in February 2013, I never expected to be my son’s full-time carer for three and a half years. The original plan was for me to return to work for my then employer after five months’ maternity leave. We visited a nursery when he was just a fortnight old with the intentions of him going there. However, by the time he was six weeks old, I’d discovered that the role of looking after my baby was not the dreary existence I thought it would be pre-labour. The myths that I had wholeheartedly consumed for my entire life were not true. I could look after my child for a while and then return to the workplace. And I was going to try my hardest to achieve it.

I hadn’t lost my skills or contacts or professional ambition, and I felt that taking a few years out of the office to care for my son would not kill my career. Whilst postnatal anxiety took a hold, I also felt that I could accomplish anything I wanted. I threw myself fully and passionately into making life as fun as possible for both of us. I invented a timetable of activities to wile away the hours – Music Monday, Fingers Thursday and Fruitbowl Friday to name but a few.

I cried. And cried. And cried. I grieved for my old life, my old friends, my skirts and heels, my freedom. Many of the people who wanted to know me when I was CEO, turned their backs now I was M.A.M. I learnt a lot. It turns out I am a person who loves to be quiet, and I hadn’t realised how much time I had spent on my own in the years leading up to motherhood. Now my life was filled with constant gurgling, talking, singing, crying and shouting. Dear Lord, the shouting. And for the first 18 – 24 months of my darling boy’s life, he would not nap anywhere but on me. So there were huge chunks of silence where I couldn’t do anything except to sit and dream, think, research potential clients and learn about maternity discrimination. Oh, and master the art of bladder control as he dozed on me for four hours at a time.

Until recently I felt that the past three and a half years felt like three and a half years, but with the realisation that nursery is just around the corner, I now feel that it has sped by. I’m having flashbacks of things that I had completely forgotten – the happy times and the low. Bawling my eyes out whilst singing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” was probably a low point, as was threatening to put him in the kitchen bin if he wouldn’t stop crying.

It’s difficult to say which half of this incredible period in my life has been the hardest. Any parent will testify that as certain things improve, new challenges appear to rock your confidence and bite you on the arse. The past eighteen months has been joyous in that we can have real conversations, and he dances with me, and he makes me laugh deep belly laughs which can sometimes end in tears because I am just so happy to be his Mam. It’s been tough too. Caring for my son whilst running my own business has been a massive challenge. I work at night and weekends and for the past seven months I’ve worked six hours whilst he went to playgroup.

And now here we are. Let’s be real Emma, he’s not going to boarding school in far off lands. He’s attending pre-school nursery for three hours each day. We’ll still have mornings and late afternoons. He’ll make new friends, I can work during daylight hours. We’ll both be refreshed and not so grumpy with each other.

I feel so blessed to have had this experience,  and now we’re through it, I wouldn’t change a single thing. There’s certainly been some sacrifice, not least financial, and I AM truly looking forward to watching Real Housewives in my pyjamas   growing my business, exercising and spending some time with my parents without the constant soundtrack of a toddler in the background.

 

As I walk home from the nursery drop-off tomorrow, I will breathe a sigh of gratitude. This part has passed now, but there’s exciting unknown times ahead. And besides, we’ll be feeding the ducks come half past three.

 

Care

Me and dad after gun

Care. A small word with many meanings, some of which I’m just at the brink of beginning to understand.

My introduction to the word ‘care’ was dripping in saccharine coated goo created for childhood entertainment and merchandising. The Care Bears have a lot to answer for, but back then I learnt a lot from Love-A-Lot Bear and the gang. Caring was about love and tenderness and feeling happy thoughts about someone. There wasn’t much to do in my youngest version of caring. It was a feeling.

This didn’t change until my early thirties. I watched my Mam change after my Dad’s diagnosis of MS. She refused to be referred to as his “carer” for a long time but it was pretty clear to those around her.

For a while, the caring role was subtle. Supporting my Dad at appointments, making sure he didn’t fall, picking up the slack with the housework that my Dad was no longer able to do. Coping for both of them.

As my Dad’s ability to do the most basic tasks shrunk, my Mam’s to do list increased ten-fold. All while coping with secondary breast cancer herself. The support they received in the North East of England was hovering around the zero mark and, whilst it has been significantly improved in Scotland, there is still huge chasms of doubt and confusion. There just aren’t the resources available to fully respond to the very different needs of each and every carer and the person that they care for.

For the first time in my life I am realising that care is not the definite article that I believed for so long. It’s confusion personified. Relationships change, people change, conditions change. My Dad has dementia now and this has created a calm chaos amongst the people who love him. What does caring involve now? How do we help him to remain Dad? How do we let him go?

For a long time, I didn’t believe that my Mam had a carer because, although I am there for her and support her as much as I can, I wasn’t an “official carer.” I guess I thought that if I wasn’t receiving carers allowance than I wasn’t a carer. HOWEVER…the wonderful people from VOCAL  were very clear that I too was a carer and I was able to access support services. Their definition of being a carer is:

A carer provides regular help to a family member, partner or friend with a long-term disability, physical or mental health problem or addiction.

VOCAL gets it – and if you’re in Edinburgh or Midlothian you can access their services too.

My only advice to fellow carers is to sit with your feelings for as long as you need to, and then take a quiet peak into the world in which you find yourself. It may be cancer, or MS, or dementia, or countless other worlds which we would do anything not to be involved with. However I’m beginning to find that there are people out there who are offering the kind of support that I  am –  and we as a family –  are looking for.

One such project is from Katherine Brown’s Beauty and Utility Arts. A Book of Me is designed to help people with dementia in a tradition that is as old as time. Storytelling is the key component  – sharing stories between people with dementia, reminding people of their lives and what they have experienced, informing care and medical professionals about who they are looking after, and serving to support the families and carers. They’re currently crowd funding to widen the project beyond Hinckley, and I watch with anticipation to see what A Book Of Me achieves. Help Katherine achieve something wonderful by visiting her crowdfunding page.

As a family whose bond is unbreakable, we still struggle sometimes to move together in the same direction at the same time. To be a carer is to work (and no doubt about it, it’s the hardest work imaginable) through a fog which clears only long enough for you to recognise that the horizon has changed, and then the sea fret covers us all again.

And yet, there is something that keeps us strong. It anchors us back to each other, the people in the photographs from the good old days. Back when we were in shell suits and I was holding onto Funshine Bear. The definite article. The love. The care.

Image: David Anderson

https://www.facebook.com/DNAweddingphotography

Join the club

muirfield (GETTY IMAGES)

Earlier this month a Scottish golf course announced that it’s all male-membership had voted against allowing women to join. Stories from Muirfield were quick to emerge. Male golfers can take their dogs into the bar whilst their wives aren’t permitted to join them. A female senior executive in the Open Tour was told that she couldn’t eat in the club house because she had a vagina (I paraphrase but that’s the crux of it). She was made to sit in the kitchen. Apply this to any other group in society and there would be uproar.

However, there are clubs up and down the UK that are shunning women. These clubs – also known as the work place – are discriminating women in a way that is destructive to modern society. Whilst few women will be sad to hear that they can’t join an elitist golf club which costs thousand of pounds per year to join, I can’t imagine there are many women who choose to forsake their career (including those who are caring for their child full time) when they choose to start a family.

As the Muirfield story broke, I was on day three of my research phase for my book on maternity discrimination. I had read countless anecdotes from women who have gone through this and had spoken briefly to women I know. My understanding of maternity discrimination was solid prior to the interview process beginning, or so I thought. Now that I am ten days in to this I am seeing the workplace for what it really is.

Many women (not all) can be who they want to be and do what they want to do until they decide to start a family. At that point the workplace becomes an elitist members only club. The ‘lucky’ ones – and after talking to many women in this situation they do think of themselves as fortunate – will take a pay cut and work in a job they don’t want and are over qualified for. Thousands upon thousands more will be kicked out of the club and made to feel worthless, that the workplace is not a place for them.

It’s very early days and yet I am seeing similarities in the accounts that I have heard. I’ve interviewed women in many sectors already and there are patterns emerging in every account. There are lessons to be passed on that are common across the industries and crucially employers are making the same mistakes time and time again, but because women aren’t able to share their experiences publicly, employers are getting away with it.

For now.

If you have an experience you’d like to share please get in touch.