My earliest childhood memory is of a pair of ice skates, hanging on a hook on a wall. This wall was found in a charity shop in Worthing, Sussex. Me, my mum, brother and sister were regulars in the shop in the early 1970s- not because we were recycling which is a growing trend today, but because we were very poor. My mother was a single mum, eking out a nurse's salary to cover all of us. She received no support from my father, from whom she was separated and later divorced. We relied on charities in those days to get us through the tight times. Those times were with us a lot.
As a four-year-old child in the charity shop, how I longed for the ice skates – magical things that would somehow make my life more exciting. We always left with sensible things - coats, shoes, dresses, trousers, sweaters. I know what it is to live in a home where every penny matters, that relied from time to time, on the kindness of strangers. This kindness saves people in trouble. It certainly saved us. It enables them to carry on, to keep going another day and then the next. It enables them to survive. We might drop things at the charity shop today, as so many of us did after lockdown ended, taking out our extras and creating space in the wardrobe. For so many people, like for my mum back in the day, your extras are everything, they are the chance other people desperately need.
At Ajaz.org, we are delighted to have the opportunity to support Little Village, London's biggest baby bank. Little Village provides donated baby kit, clothes, shops, toys and essentials to families with children 0-5 who are going through difficult times. It operates from hubs in Camden, Battersea and Roehampton and is soon to open in Brent. It is only 5 years old, but has grown fast. It has been gifted an enormous space in Watford – which is good – because donations have been flowing thick and fast, particularly over the August Bank Holiday weekend, when hundreds of Afghan families arrived in the UK through the evacuation. Little Village was there, on the spot, with no warning, co-ordinating the cross-London effort to get crisis bundles to families who had left their country with nothing. These bundles were there to see the Afghan families through the 10-day quarantine. The families were reassured that when they were in their next accommodation they could come back for more.
Sam Kelly and I, both working on Ajaz.org, had the opportunity to visit Roehampton and Battersea on 21st September. We saw some crisis bundles, ready to go. Popping his head over the lip of one crisis bag was a pre-loved soft toy lion. In another, I could see a teddy bear. Yes, the crisis bags had clothes and toiletries, but also toys for children whose own beloved toys were lost to them. I could imagine little hands reaching for that lion. Perhaps, by now, this has happened and he is tucked away in a big hug, held tight by a child who has seen way too much.
Little Village is a big operation, handling large numbers of donated gifts every week. The donations have to be of a high quality – as they are given in gift parcels to families, so need to be of gift standard. They take clothes and shoes for children aged 0-5 years. They take beds, Moses baskets, pushchairs and buggies, potties and baths. They take toys, books and crafts materials. All of these items are sorted into relevant storage and then volunteers come to help sort them into packages for families, which always includes a gift for the mothers – essentials like toiletries and sanitary wear. The volunteers pack bags using referral forms from agency partners, who provide sufficient information to set the volunteers on the hunt for what is needed.
What is clear is that these packages not simply stuffed with any old thing that fits what is on the list. As Gem, Centre Lead at Battersea told us, what exists at the centre of Little Village is heart, is love. The volunteers will go the extra mile to find the right toy, the right clothes for the children they are packing for. The referral forms give information like “this little girl really likes superheroes” or “this little boy likes the colour blue and Lego”. The volunteers will search the stores to find something as close as possible. This is because through the referral form, they have a connection with the child or children at the other end. The kit is just the beginning. It is the start of a conversation with families about local resources and networks, benefits and entitlements – often all unknown to those who are referred. Little Village is throwing a safety net around families who are so often invisible, so often left behind but so equally worthy of the time, respect, understanding and support that we all need, in different ways, at different times in our lives.
In 1970, I was four years old. A small girl in a family that needed help, that needed the generosity and the time of others to get by. What we found today at Little Village today was care, generosity, time given for free, total commitment and a love for families given in huge amounts. I was able to make a donation of clothes (boys and girls, 3-5, hoodies, socks, tights and pants), because right now, I am lucky to be able to afford to do it. So, it is on me to share the luck and through Ajaz.org, to help fund and spread the love that is found in Little Village. Ajaz.org will be learning more about them in the weeks and months to come.
Nicola Brentnall MVO
For more information, check out www.littlevillage.org