Like parents everywhere, Melissa Healy and Yvonne Evans met and made friends in the school playground.
But their budding bond went beyond a quick chat while waiting for the children to finish school or the odd cup of tea at each other’s houses.
As mums of children with special educational needs, they began supporting each other through life’s struggles.
And with the help of fellow mum and friend Kelly Kay, they have now extended that support across the Paulsgrove ward by setting up a groundbreaking group for parents.
Paulsgrove Parenting Angels is the first parent-led organisation in the north of the city for mums, dads and carers of children with additional or special educational needs.
Melissa, 37, Yvonne, 48, and 29-year-old Kelly set up the group after noticing how they and their children had benefitted from the support they gave each other.
‘A little group of us would drop the kids off and then meet for a coffee, a chat and a hug and a cry if we needed it,’ says Melissa.
‘We could vent our frustrations if we wanted to and we understood each other.
‘Then we looked round the playground thought “I wonder how many other parents are struggling and feeling the same way?” People are very good at putting on a brave face, but we found out a lot of people needed that extra support.’
Melissa’s daughter, Lilly-Mei, has multiple allergies and debilitating eczema which has affected her behaviour and schooling.
The mum had only just moved to the Paulsgrove area and was feeling isolated and stressed when she met Yvonne, whose son, Horatio, has severe hearing problems.
‘We just started talking, as you do in the playground, and realised we had loads of things in common,’ explains Melissa.
‘We both have children with health needs that makes them frustrated and difficult, as well as our own health issues.
‘We’d been walking the same path. Now if I’m stressed or upset, she knows and understands immediately.
‘Our friendship has changed my life and I know it sounds a bit sappy, but I really couldn’t manage without Yvonne and Paul [Yvonne’s husband].’
The two mums started talking to Kelly because many of the parents at the school knew about her son Zak, who has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
Before Zak started receiving treatment, Kelly lost count of the times she was called to the school because of his behaviour.
‘Everyone knew Kelly as ‘Zak’s mum’,’ says Melissa. ‘Lilly was very fond of him so I thought I’d go over and say ‘‘hi’’ and get to know her.’
A loving little boy, Zak’s behaviour was nevertheless so bad at times that he was excluded from school. When he was in Year One, he left the school site, took a bike and rode home.
Yvonne is married and Melissa has a partner, but Kelly is on her own and has really benefitted from the relationship with her two close friends.
She says: ‘I didn’t like going out and it was difficult for Zak to mix with other kids. Now we both have people who understand.’
It was at the end of the summer holidays that the mums hit on the idea for the group.
Melissa says: ‘We were all really struggling and there didn’t seem to be an outlet for that. We thought “we can’t be the only ones”.’
The Angels offer advice and a listening ear. About 30 people turned up to the group’s first meeting.
Parents and carers can meet representatives from organisations that help with accessing financial benefits and health and education support,
The group is funded by charity Portsmouth Parent Voice and also works with organisation Portsmouth Parent Partnership Service.
Tracy Brewer, a parent adviser with PPPS, says: ‘As a parent of a child with additional needs you see so many professionals and often don’t feel particularly empowered.
‘A lot of the time you feel like you are being talked down to. So advice is very important.
‘But the other great thing about this group is that parents can meet other people in a social setting and not have to worry about other parents’ reactions to their children.
‘They’re talking about picnics in the summer. Parents can go, knowing that if their child has a meltdown, the group will understand.’
Melissa, Yvonne and Kelly certainly know what it’s like.
Melissa has four children including eight-year-old Lilly-Mei.
Lilly-Mei has allergies to nuts, legumes and fish, as well as the eczema, which has stopped her joining in activities. She has to moisturise four times a day and needs extra health support at school.
Melissa says past family problems and the health issues have affected Lilly-Mei’s behaviour.
Paulsgrove Parenting Angels run a monthly coffee morning where parents can meet other mums, dads and carers and access information on services.
The group, which is open to people in the Paulsgrove ward, meets on the last Thursday of the month at Paulsgrove Community Centre in Marsden Road from 9.30am to 11am.
Portsmouth Parent Voice (PPV) is a charity that helps parents access services and also allows them to voice their opinions on disability services.
Portsmouth Parent Partnership Service works with parents, schools and health organisations to help parents gain access to extra support but also understand what they can realistically expect.
Information: firstname.lastname@example.org or find the group on Facebook.
Visit portsmouthparentvoice.org or call or text (07825) 185608.
For PPPS, visit askportsmouth.org or call (023) 9273 2542.