In this blog, Kate Chivers, Project Manager for Birth Companions, talks about setting up a service user engagement project for mothers experiencing severe disadvantage. In a month by month diary, she shares her experiences
A six-month roller-coaster ride - starting up a service user engagement project for Birth Companions
I’ve worked for Birth Companions since 2012, and I had previously set up a breastfeeding peer support project. Running a new project to develop the role of service-users in the design and delivery of services, research and governance was an ideal role for me.
Birth Companions is a charity working to support mothers experiencing severe disadvantage during pregnancy, birth and early parenting. Through the project we’ll provide support with a weekly community group and create new opportunities for service-users by training them as peer supporters, researchers and trustees.
A project that involves change in every area of the organisation was always going to be challenging. Here’s my month by month account of what’s happened so far:
This month I started as project manager for the Big Lottery project. Knowing Birth Companions well, meant I had a head start. I think it would have taken longer to understand the intricacies of the role without that background.
In my first week I took some time to really understand the project. I sketched out the individual strands of the project so that I could see how they all connected. The central tenet is to engage service users across all services. A big task but an incredibly exciting one.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride. It took several weeks to really understand all the elements of the project and what I was required to do. The most important document I wrote in the early weeks was an implementation plan so I could maintain focus on all the different strands. I have never managed a project of this size before and it took time to feel comfortable with the increased responsibility.
What did I do that was helpful at this stage? I attended a Clinks event on service user involvement and met managers from other charities. I listened to what they found worked and the challenges they faced.
On the NCVO website I found a database of criminal justice charities and found anyone working on a similar project. This led me to the charity Certitude and the project ‘Beyond Prison’. I spent a morning at HMP Pentonville observing a peer support training session. This was really valuable and provided insight into how our course could be delivered. It was interesting to observe the prisoners engage in the training and how much they were enjoying it. I began to reflect on the benefits of peer support training for our service users who choose to apply.
Listening has been a vital skill in the early stages of the project - to staff, volunteers, service users and other people who have been on a similar journey.
The support of the staff team is crucial because you can’t enable things to happen unless everyone is working towards the same goal. The entire team have been incredibly supportive.
We’ve recruited for two posts for the project and it’s fantastic to have the new team members. The recruitment process is long and time consuming but vital to the delivery and success of the project.
I attended NCVO’s ‘Setting up and managing a befriending or mentoring programme’ training which was invaluable. I met people from other organisations and learnt a great deal about how to approach the recruitment and training of peer supporters. Confidence in my abilities has grown in the past few weeks. At the beginning of the training course I described myself as ‘taking a deep breath’ regarding the task ahead. What initially felt like a mountain to climb is feeling a lot more achievable.
We held our first service user focus groups in prison and in the community. Women with lived experiences have a valuable contribution to make to shape our services. I found it humbling to meet with women and an incredibly enriching experience. The women were interested in how they can be involved in developing services and in volunteering. For many years ex-service users have been asking how they can give something back and the creation of this opportunity was met with great enthusiasm.
So far, the role is exciting, rewarding, challenging and demanding in equal measures!
A new year and a new phase begins. My main task apart from making sure all the elements of the project are on track, is to gather together all the information I have gleaned from visits and phone calls over the last few weeks to write a framework document. It’s a slightly daunting task and I’m going to attempt to hide away from emails and calls in order to focus on this.
The new community group starts mid-January and the clock is ticking! I am eager to start but need to make sure everything is in place. There are lots of issues to think about: insurance, child care, activities, health and safety and building links with other agencies to sign-post women to. Thankfully this task is now shared as Wendy is on board as the Community Group Coordinator.
Wendy worked tirelessly to get things ready and started the group just three weeks into her new job on a very positive note. Six women attended the first week. It brought everything into perspective for me and it was the culmination of so much work from so many people. It was a cold winter day and we provided warmth in a caring and supportive environment. One woman said it felt like home.
Tick one for setting up a community group. The work behind the scenes continues at a rate of knots. I have been speaking with service users to introduce the volunteering opportunities. We had a great response but also there are challenges. We know the benefits are numerous for all involved and we now we need to work through the obstacles. At this stage I feel like a juggler, hoping not to drop any balls…..
Another busy month in the life of a project manager! I have been supporting key staff members and planning the peer support training programme. I’ve been in contact with a fellow attendee from the NCVO course who encouraged me to purchase the toolkit for training befrienders/mentors after our training last year. It has been really useful while writing the training.
Deadlines are looming and I find myself reflecting on how things always take longer than anticipated. I need to write the course, find a venue and organise four dates which all 10 peer supporters can attend whilst being flexible, working to a deadline and within a budget. I find I achieve the most when I work at a time when other people generally don’t. Birth Companions are incredibly flexible and I can plan my own diary so luckily if I find myself with a quiet evening I can choose to work (unusual as I have two teenage boys).
I am feeling more confident about the decisions I am making in the role but feeling pressured for time. The time spent meeting people from other charities and building up a picture of perinatal support currently being provided has been incredibly useful. The learning has helped me to make decisions and shape how we move forward. I have met some amazing and inspiring people. One key learning has been to always do what you say you are going to do and I am striving for that every day.