Assembly of talents offers support for school parents

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A GROUND-breaking Parent Support Group has been set up for mums and dads of school-age children across town.

The innovative venture is the brainchild of parent Essie Andrews, who has teamed up with two teachers from Woodlands Primary School and a local vicar.

Mother-of-three Mrs Andrews is working with Rev Sharon Lovelock of Tonbridge Methodist Church and Woodlands staff members Rita Tarrant-Blick, the school’s Inclusion Manager, and Sarah Hardcastle, Pastoral Support Officer.

She was motivated to set up the group when she discovered there was no help available for families of schoolchildren.

‘I found that as I focused on trying to find support for my son, I felt alone and unsupported,’ she told the Times.

‘I felt that I needed something – not so much counselling or therapy but moral support, talking to other parents who understand and are going through difficult situations themselves.’

She added: ‘I only found a group run by [mental health charity] Mind, but I don’t have any mental health issues and it wasn’t what I was looking for.

‘I found I wasn’t the only one finding things tough sometimes, and by chance I talked to others who felt the same way about the lack of support available.

‘Parents of children under five can use the local centres and seek help from health visitors, and there are also numerous toddler groups they can attend.’

In the midst of this isolation, the different strands of the group fell into place.

Mrs Andrews explained: ‘I approached Rev Sharon to see how she felt about helping to set up a group.

‘She had thought about it before and was very enthusiastic about the idea.

‘Almost at the same time Mrs Tarrant-Blick and Mrs Hardcastle had begun putting the idea forward to parents [at Woodlands].

‘And from that we joined together, and now have an amazing team of volunteer parents managing the group, with the support and help of the church and the school.’

The group is there to serve the town as a whole, not just Woodlands parents – and there is no religious dimension to the project.

‘It’s a partnership, a three-way thing,’ said Rev Lovelock, who has three daughters ‘for her sins’. ‘It just seemed to make sense that we should come together. That’s what it’s all about, community.’

Five other volunteers help to run the group. None of them had been involved in anything like it before – nor has anyone heard of such a group that covers an entire town.

Mrs Andrews says: ‘I guess it may be unusual but Tonbridge is not that large and has a great sense of community spirit.’

The response has been ‘overwhelmingly positive’ and the first four meetings ‘have gone really well, they were very relaxed’.

‘We talked about various parenting topics, we didn’t have an agenda but the conversation took its own natural flow.’

Subjects of discussion have ranged from the different types of special needs to travel issues when starting out at a new school.

Gayle Hobden, a mother of two, recalled: ‘A few people in the group last time had bereavements in the family and their children had to deal with it, and they just started talking about it.’

Woodlands is not actively involved in the scheme and the two teachers do not attend the meetings.

Mrs Tarrant-Blick said: ‘We have kept in the background so far because we don’t want to intimidate. We’ve offered our backing and provided facilities but we don’t come to meetings.’

‘The parents will feel less threatened if we’re not there,’ she adds. ‘This is about seeking support a different way, peer to peer.’

Mrs Hobden says their input has been crucial, however. ‘They are more likely to talk to another parent, but we needed the experience and guidance of these two ladies because it’s not something that we had done before.’

The founder is already planning to branch out, with splinter groups looking at different aspects of parenting such as ADHD and autism.

There will also be guest speakers, and on May 21 parenting coach Sarah Weller will talk about how positive parenting helps children with ADHD.

Their Facebook page @tonbridgepsg is popular, and they hope that as the news spreads, parents will feel more comfortable about coming forward.

‘I think some people are a bit frightened,’ said Mrs Hobden. ‘They have something they want to talk about but they’re scared so they hold back.’

Mrs Hardcastle added: ‘You’ve got to get the word of mouth out there so people know of others who have attended and they can trust that a little bit more.’

The group meets twice a month, at Woodlands from 6.30-8pm and at the church from 9-10.30am Visit @tonbridgepsg on Facebook for details.

PICTURE: STRONGER TOGETHER: (L-R) Tonbridge Parent Support Group founder members Rev Sharon Lovelock, parent Gayle Hobden and teachers Rita Tarrant-Blick and Sarah Hardcastle at Woodlands School PHOTO: Craig Matthews

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