When you’re getting dressed up for party season, spare a thought for Hawa. The closest she gets to dressing up is piling on layers of clothes to keep herself warm to save heating for when her two young children get home.
The 33-year-old mother of two is a regular at Parent Club in Clapton, one of the organisations we will be seeking to fund in our Christmas appeal in partnership with Comic Relief.
They work with local families, most of whom live in temporary accommodation in two nearby hostels, putting on play sessions for children, making healthy meals and passing on information about nutrition to parents.
Hawa, who fled her native Guinea as a teenager to escape female circumcision, has been coming to the group since her six-year-old daughter was a baby. She is a fixture around the place, helping new parents settle in, sharing advice and translating for some of them. She lives in a one-bedroom flat and says many women who attend have been in tears over money worries and bills.
She said: “The electricity and gas has become so expensive. Things that used to be one pound cost two so I try to minimise heating.”
Some weeks she visits the group several times but says the conversation is often the same, adding: “Everyone is crying here, really crying — either the price of electricity or they don’t have money”.
She is permanently in debt to the electricity company and has noticed how the credit on her pre-paid meter depletes faster than ever. “Three days ago, I put in £10 and today there was £4 left. I can’t believe how quickly the money is eaten up.”
Parent Club also helps mothers like Hawa feel a sense of community, particularly as the hostel rules do not allow visitors. The project was set up by Chris Brown, a teacher turned charity worker, who said the key to their success was their informal approach to people who might be wary of officialdom.
“Our priority is engaging hard-to-reach families who might feel a little uncomfortable in a more formal setting but, in addition to a healthy meal once a week, we’re also hoping to act as a bridge to other outlets that might be useful to them.”
Up to two dozen adults with children attend their sessions and project volunteers often go door to door at hostels to tell new arrivals how Parent Club can help.
Mr Brown added: “A lot of our families are new to the country and some have long-standing mental health problems. It can be difficult to navigate a new community. If you’re in temporary accommodation, you’ve got a lot going on, and if you’re a single mum with two kids, it can be quite hard to even get organised to leave the house. Everything is optional. If people just want to sit and have a cup of tea, that’s fine.”
But costs for the centre that hosts Parent Club are going up, too, with energy bills due to rise steeply. So additional funding will be needed just to keep the lights on. For Hawa, the place is a reminder of happy times in her early childhood. “I grew up in a big family where we all sat down to eat and talk together and this place offers that.
“I come here and I know lunch is sorted and I meet and talk to other people and sometimes there is even some extra food I can take home. It’s both my back-up plan and a home from home.”