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Lifeline for Parents

Pre school worker and child playing with toys
Children playing at Derbyshire Toy Libraries

Two well-established local groups offer welcome support to those with young children

by Claire Ganthony

When I first moved to Crich five years ago, my eldest son was 18 months old and I had another on the way. The playgroups in the village were so important in helping me settle into our new home and meet people who have become firm friends. Both Toy Library and Popalong provide a lifeline for parents, with hot drinks, friendly faces and listening ears in abundance, thanks to the efforts of the volunteers who run them.

Ann-Marie reading to the children at Derbyshire Toy Libraries
Ann-Marie reading to the children at Derbyshire Toy Library

Toys to borrow Established on 22 May 2000 

Crich Millennium Toy Library was set up by Ann-Marie McMillan and a group of enthusiastic volunteers, who all had children under the age of five at the time. The aim was to provide a rural toy library for families who were unable to travel easily to the towns. They were supported by local health visitors, who provided statistics to show the need for the provision. The charity has grown, becoming Derbyshire Toy Libraries, and today sessions are held in Belper, South Normanton, Duffield, Ripley and Holbrook, as well as Crich.

Ann-Marie and Tina Farr deliver the Toy Library and Intergenerational Stay & Play sessions in term time, supported by Tracey Rogers and Jack Davies during school holidays. They are self-employed and only paid for the sessions. Everything else they, and others, do for Toy Library is on a voluntary basis. The work varies from that of Trustees overseeing the charity, to planning the sessions and providing party packages, as well as facilitating the Kids Zone at Belper Goes Green. In Crich, sessions are usually led by Tina, supported by Liz and Corinne.

Mother playing with her children at Popalong

Popalong pops up

When Lynda Gray moved to Crich in 2003, she’d recently become a grandmother. She became aware of new parents in similar situations to her daughter and grew interested in the support available to them in the area. Popalong had existed for decades, run by local parents and held in their homes. It tended to fold as their children grew, before being reborn with another wave of babies and new parents.

There was support for a more permanent group and Popalong Baby & Toddler Group was established in its current form in October 2006 by Lynda, Di Fretwell and Heather and George Johnson. At first, the equipment was donated, but sessions quickly became very busy and by Christmas 2006 it was clear more was needed. Amber Valley Volunteer Bureau helped Popalong obtain a grant to buy tables, chairs and some larger equipment such as the soft play cushions and climbing frame.

Since then, Popalong has gone from strength to strength, with the team expanding and changing over time. Jan and Stuart Needham came with their grandchildren and continued to support Popalong as the children outgrew it. Later on, Lynn Penson led craft sessions before becoming a grandmother herself. The current team consists of Lynda and Jim, Heather and George, Jan, Deirdre and Martyn Offord and Christine Hall. Jim, George and Martyn set up – and Martyn also leads the singing at the end of each session. Serena Hancox and Lynn help when extra support is needed.

Both groups are highly valued by those who attend them. One parent told me, ‘Toy Library’s a fun environment for me to bring my toddler to. It helps her learn to socialise with other children and it helped me to make friends when we first moved to the area.’ ‘I always borrow toys from Toy Library rather than buy,’ said another. ‘That way, when the kids get bored of them, they’re not left cluttering up my house! I can return them for other children to enjoy.’

But it’s the volunteers themselves who really make the groups so special. All the parents, carers and grandparents I spoke to emphasised how much they appreciate what volunteers do. ‘People look forward to Friday mornings,’ a Popalong parent told me. ‘It’s a lifeline to know that you’ll get a smile, a hot drink and someone to talk to who understands and wants to listen.’ ‘You know they all really care and want to know how you are,’ another added. ‘If any of the volunteers see you sitting on your own or think you’re not your usual self, they’ll come over and check on you. When you first come to the group, they introduce you to other parents. They do all they can to make you feel welcome.’

Volunteer Liz from Derbyshire Toy Libraries
Volunteer Liz from Derbyshire Toy Libraries

So, what’s in it for those who volunteer? Liz has been with Toy Library for about 16 years. Her initial motivation was to meet people as she was new to the area, but it’s the friends she’s made that keep her coming back.

For Corinne, it was the central value of the importance of play that drew her to volunteer. Her professional life had involved working with children and when she retired, she looked for volunteering opportunities that aligned with her core values. She also enjoys the social aspect of the role: ‘This morning I’ve done nothing but talk to people,’ she told me with a smile. Connecting with younger people and families is something she values too, as she feels it’s important not to only socialise with your own age group, especially as you get older. ‘It’s also good for my memory to try to remember everyone’s names!’ she laughs.

Popalong Team
Popalong Team

That connection with young people is something that Deirdre mentioned to me, too. She enjoys seeing the children grow and believes in the importance of supporting family life and services for families. Popalong is a collaboration between St Mary’s and the Wesleyan Chapel.

Their faith is a motivating factor for these volunteers, but religion is not pushed. When Martyn plays his guitar and sings ‘jig-jog’ with the bouncing, giggling children at the end of the session, it’s clear to see what he gets out of volunteering here. He’s been away for a few weeks, travelling in Peru. ‘I’ve really missed you,’ he tells everyone, mirroring the childrens' joy back at them. It’s clear the appreciation is mutual.