ON THE GROUND: Home-Start, Erdington, Birmingham

Scheme: A network of 325 schemes throughout the UK and British armed forces in Germany and Cyprus. Volunteers with experience of parenting offer support to parents of young children in their own home. Home-Start provides training, information, guidance and support to the independent schemes.

Funding: In 2001/02, received £1.1 million from donations and grants, £846,445 from the Government, £360,651 annual fees from Home-Start schemes and £73,480 from other income

Objectives: To offer friendship, support and practical help to parents experiencing problems

When Marie Tocker contacted Home-Start in August 2000, she was at her lowest ebb. She had undergone one operation to remove part of her large intestine and faced two further procedures to repair the bowel. Her GP had diagnosed her as clinically depressed, she had become withdrawn and feared leaving the house. She also worried that the additional pressure of coping with three young children could trigger another attack in her husband, who was diagnosed schizophrenic in 1995.

"The two of us were getting very worn on the shoulders," says Tocker.

"We just needed someone to take the weight off."

Social services referred Tocker to Home-Start in Erdington, Birmingham, where her case under went a needs assessment and volunteer Sue Moffat was found. Moffat is a retired welfare officer and had already worked with another Home-Start family. The scheme trained her one day a week for 10 weeks and covered basic counselling skills.

Moffat started helping out with household chores for two to three hours a week but "after my ironing baskets were empty," says Tocker, the pair would sit down and have a cup of tea. Tocker stopped taking anti-depressants and after a couple of months would go out in Moffat's car to the supermarket or to a local pub for lunch.

"Being a volunteer is almost like being a family member," says Moffat.

"Having someone to do things with enables people to rebuild their confidence."

When Tocker underwent two major operations, Moffat began daily visits, a commitment which exceeds most volunteers' input to the scheme. While Home-Start helped to secure a place at a nursery for Tocker's youngest daughter and applied for funding for afterschool clubs.

After two years, Tocker no longer required the scheme's support. "She's a classic case," says Moffat. "She doesn't need me anymore and she's even started learning to drive." Tocker now works one day at week for mental health awareness charity Rethink, as a trained helpline adviser and meets up with Moffat as a friend. "I had to put a lot of trust into Home-Start," says Tocker. "I really don't know how I can repay them."

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