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Home-Start Canterbury and Coastal at risk after losing Big Lottery funding

A mum who was offered vital help by charity Home-Start has revealed how its closure would devastate families across the district.

Lucy Toner is one of hundreds of parents who have been helped by the charity.

The mum-of-three from Herne Bay was referred to them after struggling with depression following the birth of identical twins Evie and Esme, now two-and-a-half.

Lucy Toner with twins Evie (left) and Esme (right) (14890504)
Lucy Toner with twins Evie (left) and Esme (right) (14890504)

“Evie had a stroke around birth that left her blind and with cerebral palsy and epilepsy,” Mrs Toner explained.

“I’d never suffered from depression or anxiety or anything before, but when you have a child with a disability, everything is blown out of the water. I got really depressed.

“I’d seen an MRI of Evie’s head, and knew from early on her brain had been massively damaged and she’d have problems.

“But when it was confirmed she’s severely disabled - that she’s going to be wheelchair-bound, and she’s not going to be able to speak - it was really difficult.

“That was a big part of my depression.”

Mrs Toner, 36, formerly worked as a physiotherapist, but has been a stay-at-home mum since giving birth to the twins.

“I used to be in a caring role looking after other people - I wasn’t the person that needed help,” she said.

“I found it really difficult to think about anybody helping me other than my family.”

Evie is blind, has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Picture: Gary Toner
Evie is blind, has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Picture: Gary Toner

While her family did all they could to help, Mrs Toner says she felt guilty for relying on her parents as they were dealing with their own health issues, while her in-laws were based in Ireland.

“Evie just didn’t sleep,” she said. “She screamed all the time - all day, all night, for probably the first 18 months of her life.

“It was just mental torture and I couldn’t do anything. And of course Esme needed to be fed and played with too.

“I was on my own in the day, and it terrified me. I thought, ‘oh my god, how am I going to get through the day?’”

Seeing Mrs Toner was struggling, Evie’s NHS key worker referred her to Home-Start, where she was matched with family advice worker Nikki.

“She was just like a ray of sunshine,” said Mrs Toner. “She’s so positive, bright, cheerful, but also very sensitive and caring.

“I never felt judged by her, she was just there to help.

“It was mostly Esme she helped with, because I still even now feel constant guilt because of all of the attention I need to give to Evie. It was just lovely to be able to do some normal things like going to the park, which I couldn’t do on my own.

Gary and Lucy Toner with children Meghan, seven, and twins Evie and Esme, aged two. Picture: Matthew Walker
Gary and Lucy Toner with children Meghan, seven, and twins Evie and Esme, aged two. Picture: Matthew Walker

“As well as practically helping, she emotionally supported me hugely. We would talk about things and she would empathise.

“It really helped me through a really difficult time. If this service isn’t here, people are not going to cope.

“They’re going to end up having a lot of mental health problems, and I can imagine that they’re going to be relying on their GP and other health professionals a lot more.”

Home-Start Canterbury & Coastal is supported by 30 volunteers and five paid members of staff, working tirelessly to support parents facing tough times due to bereavement, multiple births, post-natal depression and other illnesses.

The organisation’s future has been thrown into uncertainty as its current Big Lottery funding is due to end next May and staff are struggling to secure more.

Jenny Connolly, senior coordinator at Home-Start Canterbury and Coastal, feels the charity has a “very slim chance” of securing Big Lottery funding again, after having already won two back-to-back three-year schemes.

In the past year, the Canterbury-based charity has unsuccessfully applied to more than 50 organisations, and Ms Connolly says she is losing hope of finding the £120,000-a-year the charity urgently needs.

“It’s becoming increasingly competitive and difficult to find the money,” she said. “There are so many hoops to jump through, and specific requirements we don’t necessarily fulfil.

“In the past we have had local authority funding, but due to budget cuts we no longer have that.

Jenny Connolly explains why the charity is so important

“If this funding finishes and we don’t get any more, then sadly the scheme would close. It’s as simple as that.

“And there is no other service like it. We don’t just offer a short-term fix - we build a rapport with a family long-term and help them come through the other side.

“We can reapply for Big Lottery funding, but there’s no guarantee. Because we’ve had two lots back-to-back, I think we have a very slim chance.

“But in my heart, I want to think we’re going to get it because if we don’t, it’s going to be devastating for the communities we work in.”

Anyone interested in funding is asked to contact office@homestartcanterbury.org.

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