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How these mums have been given the key to happiness at the House of Hope... and are feeling at home

A drop-in centre in Dromore is providing the perfect pick-me-up for many young mothers struggling with life’s daily grind, as Jane Hardy reports.

The story of House of Hope, Dromore, is a good Advent story about unselfishness, beating bigotry, and about love. The House is run by the Via Wings charity. And the charity’s chair, Gail Redmond (47), who lives three miles away from the drop-in centre she helped found in 2009, is in a way a paid-up member of the big society. Although married to Sam, a businessman, and mum to two sons, Warren (22) and Bryce (19), she spends a large chunk of her week helping out at House of Hope.

She tells a story about a plastic bag she was given after a service one Sunday some years ago at Dromore Cathedral, which came to symbolise the giving spirit she wanted to instill in her community. She explains: “We were asked to take it back the following Sunday with food for people who needed it. Somehow it impressed me and, although I took other bags back with donations, I couldn't return that one.”

In May 2009, Gail, who felt she'd been led towards other forms of ministry in the meantime, felt driven towards a greater gesture.

“We talked to our rector and he said the church wanted to do something for people in our neighbourhood but I was told there was no need in Dromore.”

Gail knew differently and had already spotted a young single mum, Debbie Cunningham, struggling with her responsibilities. After befriending Debbie, who was suffering from the kind of low self-esteem that had plagued Gail in the past, she asked her what she needed. The twentysomething replied that she wanted “somewhere to go, to have a cup of coffee with other women and just chat”.

There was a detached house in the centre of town, close to the police station, a local school, the park and the bus service, which had always seemed to Gail to be the perfect location for a drop-in centre.

“It was so central, it was just right. Then on July 10, 2009, the house became available and it was offered to us. We never intended it but it worked out,” she says.

The ‘Wings’ part of the name isn't just an uplifting moniker, it is also an acronym, meaning ‘Working in The Name of God to Serve/Save’.

It's true — the charity has been self-funded for almost all its existence, which is remarkable in the current economic climate, and the House of Hope has reached out to various groups within Dromore, from the single mums — or ‘my girls’ as Gail calls them, echoing Miss Jean Brodie — to members of the local Alcoholics Anonymous group.

It hasn't been easy, in public or in private, and Gail reveals that, when she was younger, she felt inadequate. “I was sure that when God was handing out the talents, I was in the bathroom.”

She then learned relaxation techniques, a tool which Gail feels has deepened her faith. “I have learnt to be still and just listen. And if something rests easy in my heart, I feel it’s right.”

The bag ministry, if you can call it that, is still going strong. Gail says: “On Sunday morning, 18 families were fed and we now give out 25 bags of groceries a month. We get to know about families who need this service via the health visitors and volunteers tell us about families in need.”

Making an important point about not judging people, either the young mothers or the families who need support, Gail says: “People assume we only help certain sorts of people which makes me very cross. They look and judge others without knowing what's going on in their lives.”

She illustrates the point by saying she learnt the lesson after a close friend, whose husband was injured in an explosion during the Troubles, turned to drink after her life and marriage fell apart. “All I saw was the alcoholism but, if Sam left me tomorrow, what would I do? What would any of us do?”

Her achievements, and the achievements of the Via Wings charity, are gaining recognition, and they recently won an award for their activities. But Gail says her proudest moments are when her girls recognise their own strength and “their beauty inside”.

Recently, Debbie was interviewed about the charity and said how confident it had made her feel and that made Gail feel all the effort was worth it.

At House of Hope, they run self-esteem courses, English and maths programmes and first-aid courses. They hope to run a men’s course next year and have reacted in the last couple of years to the fact that four suicides have occurred in the community in that time by providing suicide prevention and suicide bereavement counselling.

As Gail says, she and her staff step out in faith and find things get done. The day we spoke, one of Gail’s volunteers had unexpectedly dropped dead. Yet, in spite of the tragedy, the work of House of Hope, including counselling and comfort for the woman’s colleagues, continued. It’s that kind of place.

Here we talk to three of the mums who have walked through the door of the House of Hope:

‘I just needed somewhere to go in Dromore’

Debbie Cunningham (29) has a daughter, Rachel (8), and lives in Dromore. Debbie says:

I knew Gail before Via Wings began as she was my landlady and would bring Rachel and me little Christmas presents, and have a chat. She asked me what young women needed, and I just said somewhere to go in Dromore.

I am very proud of Gail, she's done it all. Although my family were supportive when I had Rachel, my mum and brothers live up in Co Fermanagh, two sisters live in England and I only have my dad for help.

Although I'm what's known as a service user at the House, I'd like to be a volunteer as House of Hope is a Godsend for a lot of people. There are days when I get depressed but I know there's someone there. It's a support system and I've made some really amazing friends.

At the moment, I'm in the second year of a foundation course run by the Order of Malta and have retaken GCSE English. I got a D at school in Fermanagh and am striving to get a C.

After school, I got a place studying beauty therapy at college in Belfast. I did it for a year but didn’t enjoy it that much. I thought I was a really girly girl but wasn’t into the waxing and so on. I have a good relationship with my daughter’s father; we share the childcare. My daughter’s future looks good and I want to keep with the charity. This Christmas I’ll be packing bags at the local Tesco to raise money for Via Wings wearing my Father Christmas hat.”

‘I’ve taken the self-esteem course and it has worked’

Louise Robinson (31) with her family: Rees (9) and daughter Madison (6), and her partner, Mark, in Dromore. She says:

I’d always passed the House of Hope and had seen everybody inside. A year ago, a friend of mine, Naomi, brought me along one day because, although I’m not a single parent, I was at home alone and it was getting me down.

I’ve taken the self-esteem course they run here and, yes, it has worked. We did classes on how you look at yourself, we got our nails done one session, and we had to go round the room introducing ourselves to everyone else.

Then we had to tell each other, a few weeks in, one good thing we’d noticed about the other girls. Friendly was the word I got.

Although I’d got depressed and a bit down — you can feel your

mood flipping when you’re alone — I found something extra here. There are different age groups and you see different faces, it takes you out of yourself. People share different stories.

I come along two days a week and, as well as getting company, I help out too. I make tea and coffee and also listen to people if they need someone to listen. I’d like to become a volunteer eventually and give something back.

My partner says he’s noticed the difference. I’ve got a voice now.

I've just been to the House of Hope Christmas dinner, there were 40 young women there, a lot of volunteers and one or two older ladies. Everybody came together and it was fantastic. We had soup or melon, then a full Christmas dinner and a choice of dessert. We all brought something for the meal and I took a sack of potatoes. The night before there was an open house and some people came in to help prepare things.

I remember that last Christmas, just after I'd joined the group, I was dreading the festive season. With two youngsters you have to keep going but, inside, I didn't feel it.

This year is happier, I feel like a different person because of House of Hope.”

‘I was depressed, but now I want to be a prison warden’

Rebecca Finlay (22) lives in Dromore with her husband Jamie and three sons, Jay Sinnamon (3), Dylan Sinnamon (2) and one-year-old Joshua. Rebecca says:

I was at home with three kids under three and I was a bit depressed. The health visitor told me to come down to the House of Hope one day, and I talked to the other women and got answers. I’ve been coming here for three months now.

It helped me get my feelings out and I’ve made a lot of new friends. I get out of the house every day now and come here three days a week, bringing the boys. We don’t have a creche but just look after the children ourselves.

I suppose the great thing about House of Hope is that it's a second home. You just feel at home there.

Among the other mums, my special friends are Sarah and Debbie and I'm also friendly with all the volunteers. We have a good laugh and talk about outside life, what's going on. The other great thing is that we can sort of relax as our children are being looked after. They mind the kids while you relax.

It's great and I think every town should have a place like this.

The boys love it, they’ve made friends too and there are plenty of toys. Plus there’s a great back garden with a slide.

I’m doing the English and maths course set by the South Education College. I’d like to go back to hairdressing or become a prison warden. I finished my English exam today and learnt I passed.

We had to do essays and a four minute talk. I talked about tattoos and mine is at the bottom of my spine and shows Jamie.”

A charity spreading its wings

  • Founded in 2009, the charity is expanding and 2012 projects include a breastfeeding event organised by the Dromore Mums group, and a men’s group
  • The charity learnt this month it had been awarded £10,000 Lottery cash — money it will use to carry out a range of improvements to its premises.
  • This autumn, Via Wings won a Co-operation Ireland Pride of Place Award for the “huge impact” it has made on the local community.
  • The charity’s mission is “to provide a caring and non-discriminatory environment for the whole community”.

www.viawings.co.uk, tel 028 9269 8378

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