ONE of the markers of material poverty in this country — measured in the Family Resources Survey — is whether families can afford to take their children away for at least one week’s holiday each year. Forget Disneyland Paris or a trip to Florida: even a simple seaside holiday can be out of reach for people in the lowest income group.
Despite public support for the definition of such a week as a necessity rather than a luxury, and research suggesting that it brings benefits, including improved family relationships and reduced social exclusion, providing holidays largely falls to the charitable sector. In other European countries, government subsidies are available.
Those working for charities in the field are building on a rich legacy, including that of the Revd Samuel Barnett and his wife, Henrietta, who were among many moved by the appalling conditions of children who lived in the slums of Victorian London. Their charity Children’s Fresh Air Mission (Off to the Country), founded in 1884, became the Children’s Country Holidays Fund (CCHF) and is now CCHF All About Kids. It identifies about 600,000 children as living with abuse, poverty, isolation, and deprivation in London, and has given holidays to more than two million children in the past 130 years.
They are not the ragged children with rickets of the 19th century. But the Barnetts might be shocked to learn the extent to which deprivation continues to blight children’s lives. According to government figures, 3.9 million children live in poverty. This means “being cold, going hungry, not being able to join in activities with friends”, the Child Poverty Action Group says. It reports that 60 per cent of families in the bottom income quintile would like, but cannot afford, to take their children on holiday for one week a year.
Today, CCHF is moving to a new model, supporting children during term-time by working in partnership with schools to provide “residential outdoor adventure learning breaks”. Analysis of the situations of children who were referred to All About Kids in 2015 revealed isolation, domestic violence, drug and alcohol issues in the family, accommodation issues, the consequences of having a parent in prison, and the burden of young carers. Many families were receiving intervention from social services.
MOTHERS’ UNIONFun and laughter: a family on a Mothers’ Union AFIA holidayThe picture resonates with other charities that are working in this field. The Mothers’ Union has been giving holidays to disadvantaged families for the past 50 years, and their Away From It All (AFIA) project is funded by members in each of their 64 areas. The families they help can be under stress for reasons that can vary from financial problems to relationship break-ups.
“We care for families, and this is one way of helping people face adversity,” Una Kopp, project development manager for the MU in Ireland and the UK, says. “It’s about working out what’s helpful for them. It makes them feel normal. The kids go to school and can say they’ve had a holiday. And we don’t say, ‘There are places at such and such a place . . . come and fill them.’ We want to have our unique take: grass-roots people helping grass-roots people.”
Local information is the trigger: anyone can apply directly to the nearest MU branch. A referring agent could be a teacher, priest, or social worker. Dioceses have their own criteria for eligibility, but for several it is not having had a holiday for three years. In 2016, MU members spent an estimated £380,000 to send about 3400 people on a break. Beneficiaries included single parents, elderly people, and children and adults with physical or mental-health problems.
“When you read some of the applications, you realise how many difficult things there are in their lives, not just a single factor,” Mrs Kopp says. “Their mind-set, often, is that they can’t see any possibility of change: they’re beaten down. Just going away for a few days gives them a different outlook, and helps them make changes that make their life better.”
Fifty years ago, MU members invited people into their own homes for a holiday — something not considered appropriate today. Now the holiday can be anything from a week at a holiday park such as Butlins, or Haven, to a caravan holiday — some of these spent in mobile homes owned by the MU.
Volunteers also go away for a week with a group of families, to a retreat or activities centre. Referrals come through a variety of routes, including churches and Sure Start centres. It is “a very special week, a special ministry”, Mrs Kopp says. More often than not, relationships that are under strain are being rebuilt and strengthened through making new and positive memories, she says. Sometimes, it is as simple as celebrating a child enjoying and finishing a plate of food.
NEWCASTLE CHRONICLESmiling for the camera: a Poor Children’s Holiday Association trip to the seaside, in the 1920s, for impoverished children from Newcastle and GatesheadHolidays bear fruit. The daughter of one couple with mental-health problems was being bullied and not attending school. Her lack of confidence and self-esteem made her afraid to go out. A caravan holiday helped her to come out of her shell. A mother and two boys had been relocated to a new area because of domestic abuse, and were lonely as a consequence. The boys were being mocked by the other children, because they could not afford to go anywhere. New problems occurred on their estate while they were away, which they were glad to have missed. While on holiday, they found new friends from their home area, and arranged to meet when they got back.
The MU is currently working with the Bishop of Kensington’s office to offer holidays to families affected by the Grenfell Tower fire. The invitation is to apply for a holiday at a time that best suits them, whenever that may be. “It’s hard to imagine what these families are going through,” the CEO of the MU, Beverley Jullien, says. “We thought how best we could support them. AFIA holidays reflect the heart of who we are by offering support where it is needed most.”
CHARITIES’ archives reveal a multitude of good people with sympathy for the plight of children. Children North East, which offers wide-ranging support for families in crisis, started life as the Poor Children’s Holiday Association, set up in 1891 by John Lunn, a shipowner’s manager, and John Watson, cashier to Newcastle Corporation.
Lunn wrote to Watson: “If there is anyone in your district convalescent or feeble to whom a fortnight’s stay at the seaside would be of benefit, I shall be glad to pay for their lodgings, and, if necessary, their boards as well. Are there any street lads in your Mission to whom a day at the seaside would be a treat? If so, we might organise a trip.”
MOTHERS’ UNIONEncouraged: a family on a Mothers’ Union holiday. The parents now feel more confident to do more with their childrenThe Family Holiday Association, a registered charity since 1975, was started by Joan and Patrick Laurance, who had experienced first-hand what a difference a break away from home could make. Living in a single room with a sick child, and having suffered the tragic loss of their second daughter at three months old, they took a further blow when Mr Laurance was made redundant. Friends took them on holiday to the seaside — a kindness that gave them the resolve to move forward.
Mr Laurance became a councillor, and was given an allowance for his duties. He launched his charity by giving up the allowance, persuading fellow councillors to do the same, and then engaging family, friends, and trusts. The key principle remains: holidays should be seen as a necessity, not a luxury. The charity’s objectives include research and promotion of the value of holidays for families experiencing disadvantage, and raising awareness of the scale and scope of the problem of lack of access to holidays.
It cites the situation of two children, Charlie and Fran, who had lived with domestic violence from their now imprisoned father, and had never been outside the Sheffield area. Once the fear of violence was lifted, their mother wanted to give the pair a chance to run around and be children.
“Our lives have been immensely and positively touched,” she told the charity. “It was our first ever holiday together, and my children are more confident now.”
DERBYSHIRE Children’s Holiday Centre (DCHC) was set up in 1891 by public subscription, and has an attractive house in a quiet residential street just off the promenade in Skegness. Staff believe the level of need to be as great as — if not greater than — when the charity was established.
NEWCASTLE CHRONICLE“Sunshine trips”: a Poor Children’s Holiday Association trip in the early 20th century, for impoverished children from Newcastle and Gateshead
It is currently able to provide 450 holidays a year, but gets more than 600 referrals of children in desperate need of a holiday, most identified by schools and social services. Many have suffered abuse and neglect. Others, the chairman, Bill Tomlinson, says, come from loving families who are simply experiencing difficult circumstances through no fault of their own.
“Some things still shock me now, even after all this time,” he says. There is a crack in his voice as he speaks about some of the children who have holidayed at the centre: those who are so unused to regular meals that, despite the three deliciously home-cooked meals they get every day, they can be found stuffing their pockets with food to take home. Then there is the boy who, on the Christmas week put on every year for children identified as the neediest, sat surrounded by his presents but would only open five because “Me bruvvers and sisters won’t get ’owt if I open any more.” Lifeboatmen from the RNLI station come in full gear with presents; the police provide a Father Christmas.
The charity got the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2015. Mr Tomlinson cannot praise highly enough the core of paid and highly trained staff, and the willing band of volunteers, fund-raisers, and home visitors, as well as “the innumerable residents and businesses of Skegness, who are always making voluntary donations, always asking: ‘What do you need?’”
The needs are so great that the charity wants to build a reserve that will allow it to increase the number of holidays to 700, for which it will need an extra £175,000 a year.
Then there are the quiet acts of kindness. Enquiries sent to churches confirmed that money will always discreetly be found from some fund or other, or privately donated by an individual, where a family in the congregation cannot afford to go to an event such as Spring Harvest, or a parish holiday.
Alongside provision, charities are building an evidence base for advocacy in relation to the power of holidays. The “knowledge bank” available on the Family Holiday Association website contains more than 100 studies and articles from all over the world, from China to Venezuela.
Research from the University of Nottingham, for example, pointed to a statistically significant increase in life satisfaction after a break away from home.
The Association’s impact report, based on feedback from its 2016 holidaymakers, states that 92 per cent reported less stress and worry, and 87 per cent had more confidence. Through its “Holidays Matter” network, it seeks to engage with businesses interested in extending holidays to the excluded, and lobby for greater recognition of the benefits of a break.
The ultimate aim is to “banish for ever the words, ‘I’ve never been on holiday.’” More than 130 years after the Barnetts began their mission to bring fresh air to slum children, civil society continues to agitate on behalf of those deprived of a week away from it all.