When Alison Willis relocated to Gosport, she was keen to meet new people.
She and husband Neal had loved the hustle and bustle of living in London. But with two small children they were keen to swap their city flat for a home by the sea with a garden where Harry and Erin could play.
So they packed up and moved, leaving friends and their old way of life behind.
Looking to establish a new network of support, Alison joined the NCT – the UK’s largest parenting charity.
As well as running paid-for antenatal classes, local branches host regular get-togethers and activities, giving parents and children the chance to meet.
And Alison soon found herself surrounded by a busy and active community of mums and dads willing to share their own experiences of parenthood.
‘I wanted to meet mums in the area who had little ones so I joined because of that,’ explains Alison.
‘When we were up in London there weren’t any places on the NCT antenatal classes because they were so popular. So although I didn’t do the classes, I knew the NCT was a really good way to support parents and meet mums to get a nice network of support.
‘I went along to the annual members’ meeting and volunteered to help.’
Alison hasn’t looked back and the two years that she’s been involved with the Gosport and Lee-on-the-Solent branch have been a whirlwind of activity.
Along with fellow volunteers Georgina Mulhall, Mairi Halford and Ruth Snook, she set up the Little Explorers group in March 2011, giving parents a weekly outdoor session of fun and friendship.
And now Alison has been named the region’s Most Innovative Volunteer at the NCT’s own Star Awards for her role in Little Explorers.
The group already had a bumps and babies group, but the cost of hiring the venue each week meant it was losing money. So a chat in the pub one day prompted the idea for Little Explorers – with sessions taking place outdoors to prevent the need for hall hire or other expenses.
‘The idea was to explore the area,’ says Alison.
‘We started at the beach, using outdoor and recycled materials to make things. It didn’t take long to create something really nice. We do different things in different areas.
‘To be honest, I love it as much as the children.’
A similar scheme is now being set up in Portchester and the branch also runs a Tiny Explorers group for mums with younger babies at Gosport Discovery Centre.
With public spending cuts forcing some playschemes to shut and many parents finding it hard to make ends meet, a group like Little Explorers – which costs £1 per family per session – can feel like a lifeline.
The NCT commissioned its own survey last year and warned that new mums were becoming increasingly isolated as traditional support from family and friends had fallen away. Almost a third of mothers said they lived more than 40 miles away from their close family when they had their first baby and nearly a quarter didn’t know any other parents in their local area.
For Alison, the NCT has been the best way to meet friends: ‘When you are at home all day, Little Explorers offers an excuse to go out. You can go out and get two hours of fresh air. It’s make a big difference.’
She adds: ‘It’s nice to know you’re not alone. If you’re thinking “Why do they do that?” there will be someone else who says “Mine does that too”.
‘Children do push boundaries a little bit sometimes.’
‘IT’S NICE TO HAVE WORK RECOGNISED’
Raine Ryland was doing the school run when she felt the labour pains that signalled her third child was on its way.
But she still had time to pick up Rachel, now seven, and make sure she and younger sister Amy, four, were sorted before heading to the nearby Grange Birthing Centre in Petersfield.
An hour-and-a-half later, Raine returned to introduce baby Megan to the rest of the family.
Having the choice to give birth at the Grange was exactly what she needed. So when she found out the maternity unit was to close so that all midwives could be called back to Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra Hospital to cope with a baby boom, Raine took up the cause.
Along with other members of the Petersfield and Liss branch of the NCT, she campaigned for the unit to re-open and organised a public meeting.
The Grange re-opened in January and Raine has now been named NCT’s regional User Rep of the Year thanks to the part she played.
‘It’s really nice to have the hard work that everyone has done recognised in this way,’ says Raine, who still supports the Grange midwives with fundraising and awareness campaigns.
She adds: ‘I was collecting my oldest daughter from school when I felt labour pains. I don’t have any local relatives and school time is difficult because everyone is so busy. But I had time to come back home, cook tea and organise the babysitter before going to the Grange to have my baby. I wanted to be near my other children which is why the Grange is really important. The ease that we had in getting back into family life was priceless.’
The NCT raises awareness about birth options and the importance of choice.
And like Alison, Raine says it also provides parents with an invaluable network of friends.
‘The local branch members are always there when there’s fundraising for the Grange,’ she adds.
‘It’s such a great support. You might not need any help but you just need to know other people are there and that’s what the NCT does.’
FREE TASTER SESSION
A free antenatal taster session will be organised by the Gosport and Lee-on-the Solent NCT branch on Wednesday July 18 from 6pm until 8pm.
It will take place at Blake Maternity Centre at Gosport’s War Memorial Hospital.
The session will be for a maximum of six pregnant women (at any stage of pregnancy) with their partner/birth supporter, and will address questions about pregnancy, birth, and the early days with a baby.
You will also find out about what NCT offers for all local parents. Places are limited so booking is essential. Contact Kathryn on email@example.com or (023) 9250 1971.
· Gosport & Lee-on-the-Solent: 08442436140; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
The group also has its own Facebook page, featuring details of all local events.
· Portsmouth & Southsea: 0844243624; e-mail email@example.com
· Petersfield & Liss: 08442436241; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
· Havant & District: 0844 243 6157; e-mail email@example.com
· Fareham & District: 0844 243 6130; e-mail FarehamNCT@yahoo.co.uk
· Or log on to nct.org.uk