Thousands of desperate families have been helped by a Calderdale ‘baby bank’ set up by two sisters after they heard of new mothers being forced into crime.
It began with a chance conversation about an increase in thefts from local pharmacies and operated out of a spare bedroom of a family member’s house; now five years later a ‘baby bank’ charity set up by two sisters in Calderdale has supported thousands of families in dire financial straits, been featured on national television and now its celebrity supporters are putting on a star-studded comedy gala to help its work.
Sisters Emmajayne Carter and Kimberley Shedden established Mothershare in 2014 after the former, who was a governor at her local primary school in Halifax, heard from a fellow governor about an increase in shoplifting of baby products such as formula, wipes and nappies from nearby pharmacies.
“It was heartbreaking, no mother should be put in that position. Being a parent is hard enough without running the risk of a criminal record,” says Carter, who decided to try and tackle the problem by collecting donations of baby equipment and supplies that would operate in a similar way to a food bank.
After coming up with the name, the pair set up a Facebook page and the donations of everything from cots to prams to clothing and shoes quickly started rolling in. They initially starting storing the donations at a family member’s home and agreed to select those who would receive items on the basis of referrals from expert third-parties such as health visitors and midwives to ensure the support was getting to where it was needed most.
Within months, they were in need of proper offices to run the scheme from and managed to secure space at The Threeways Centre in Halifax Carter, a jeweller, and Shedden, a hairdresser, now took on a team of volunteers and have a paid worker but continue to run the organisation, which has recently received official charity status, in addition to working.
“We do Mothershare as well, it is essentially a full-time job,” Carter explains. “It has been impossible to keep track of all the donations we have received. But we have helped thousands of families. We have helped 400 in the last year alone.”
She says running Mothershare has been an eye-opening experience.
“We live in an area of high deprivation, we were always aware of that but until we started this we didn’t realise just how desperate and dire some families’ situations can be.
“It has been heartbreaking at times. On New Year’s Day a couple of years ago, we got called out to a family who were living homeless with a six-week old baby. That was how they had spent Christmas.
“The family’s situation had been alerted to paramedics who had found them some temporary accommodation. We provided them with basic equipment like nappies, formula and sterilising equipment.
“It is heart-breaking knowing it is happening but it is heart-warming that people are willing to help.
“We can only do this because of the generosity of the people of Calderdale. It is fantastic to think we have made a difference and in some cases, prevented children from going into care. We had comments like ‘I don’t know what we would have done without you’ and how wonderful it has been to have the support we can offer.”
Carter says the motivation behind the charity comes in part from their childhood experiences, when their mother left the family home and her father struggled to make ends meet as a single parent.
Mothershare uses third-party referrals to hand out donations.
“You don’t want any child to go through that situation.”
Carter says spikes in referrals in recent years have been linked to changes in the benefits system, such as the controversial introduction of Universal Credit which has had well-documented problems leaving some claimants without money for over a month. Under the scheme, six different types of benefits are being rolled into one monthly payment, including jobseekers’ allowance and working tax credit. But charities like The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have raised concerns about delays in making payments pushing already-vulnerable families into debt they cannot afford.
She says that the situation became particularly desperate for many before last Christmas, with Mothershare “inundated” with requests for help by people who couldn’t afford basics, let alone being able to purchase Christmas presents for their children.
“I have got two kids and am a grandmother so situations like that are devastating to hear about. Sometimes I feel like I am talking about 1950s East End London, there are so many cutbacks and so much poverty.”
Carter says events such as the football World Cup also lead to an increase in demand, as more domestic violence occurs and people leave abusive partners.
“There can be a bit of suspicion when you talk to people about the families we are helping. They can think ‘get a job’ but it is not that simple. You can’t do that if you are fleeing domestic violence in the middle of the night, that isn’t a ‘get a job’ situation, that is somebody in desperate need of support.”
In many respects, it has been a positive year for Mothershare. Their work was the feature of a Channel 4 News report in the summer, which led to national donations of money and supplies, while they were granted charitable status .
Their service is also due to be given greater prominence through a charity gala taking place this Sunday in Halifax which has been arranged by husband-and-wife comedians Jon Richardson and Lucy Beaumont.
Carter says the couple, who live locally and have a young child together were originally anonymous donors to Mothershare but Lucy has now become one of its trustees in addition to her work with her own non-profit organisation Backpack Buddies, which provides food to vulnerable children in her home city of Hull. The backpack of food is given to them and their family to have at weekends to fill the gap left by the absence of a hot school meal on Saturdays and Sundays.
Carter says Mothershare has also been contacted by Kirklees Council about the prospect of starting a similar scheme in their area.
But she says she sees the increase in interest in the charity’s work as no cause for celebration - and in terms of its future actually hopes that one day there will be no need for the service to exist at all.
“In five years, my honest answer is I would like to see us closed because there is no more demand,” she says. “Sadly, I don’t see that happening. I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.”