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The journey of Coffee Tots continues

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Ann McCabe continues the story of how her local toddler group grew into a café-based parenting project that offers many support services.

As previously mentioned, it was eight years ago that we took the bold step of turning our toddler group into a café-based Christian parenting support project.

Coffee Tots grew from the small seeds mentioned in the previous article, very organically responding to the needs of our customers and our city. Initially our focus was on forming relationships with customers; steadily building secure friendships with people who often live in a chaotic pattern of friendships rapidly forming and then falling away.

We wanted the space to be unintimidating, fresh and inviting for families. Our café contains toys, books, art and crafts. The food is basic but healthy, tasty and subsidised. To make the café appear roomy, and to give space for the children to play in, we have less tables than we may need – this has the added benefit of encouraging people to sit together and talk. This really helps to break down the barriers of isolation.

Introducing support services

We realised very quickly that a coffee shop wasn’t the whole answer; we needed support services. The families that come to us are often trapped in a cycle of broken relationships and suffer from a lack of parenting skills. Too often they cannot pinpoint what the matter is for themselves, but are desperate to break out of the shackles of poor mental health, poverty and the lack of education. Some start a family desiring the love that their newborn baby will bring, then become overwhelmed by the responsibility of raising a less than compliant toddler. We see people respond to this by starting the cycle again with another pregnancy; with it comes attention, interest and those most craved feelings of hope and love. Very soon these parents become totally outnumbered, as three or four children come along in quick succession.

Initially we started with three key support services:

  • A clothing swap shop

This covers maternity, birth through to teenagers. We take selective donations as our store space allows while prioritising donations by need, such as trousers for potty trainers and school uniform. We always seek high-quality items that are worn but still without flaws. There is no need for customers to bring in clothes to swap but they often like to feel they are contributing, and we find it is a good way to encourage decluttering of homes.

  • Cooking Tots

So often we hear stories of fussy eaters, and there is also a commonly held belief that fruit and vegetables are expensive so parents feel that if their children won’t eat them it’s a waste of money buying them in the first place. Too often health professionals can encourage families to wean their children onto family foods without first checking what those family foods are. Cooking Tots gives space for parents and children to try foods that they otherwise might not. In the café we run sessions that give basic cookery skills to parents and children, as well as talk about healthy eating on a budget. The families learn to make something healthy and simple, such as fruit kebabs, hummus etc. This is how our family cookery course developed.

  • Savvy Tots

Savvy Tots works with individuals to face their financial issues; teaching them to budget effectively, reduce their debt and ensure they are receiving the benefits they are entitled to. Savvy Tots also helps to equip people with things like email addresses, internet safety knowledge and gives advice on completing applications.

As we got to know people more, other things started evolving, such as a knitting club to teach people to knit, an annual Get Ready for School event and Santa’s grotto at Christmas allowing parents to pick and wrap their child a gift. This year Coffee Tots launched two key programmes, which encompass all the support we offer:

  • First 1,000 Days

Researchers have identified that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life is a critical time that affects their development and life-long health. The first 1,000 Days programme provides parents with the knowledge and opportunity to meet their children’s needs so that they can help them develop to their full potential. The programme currently includes: baby massage, sensory play, creative play and weaning courses.

  • The Bridge

This programme incorporates all of our support and advocacy work, as well as confidence building, skills-based courses and parenting courses (based on Care for the Family’s Parentalk). These are offered within the framework of beginning to reset personal expectations to bring about effective changes in people’s lives.

If I have to attribute Coffee Tot’s success to one thing it’s our ability to see a need building in our community and rapidly respond, growing organically and preventing a crisis before it develops. Each parent and family are different, with their own needs. We build services and support around them and don’t try to fit people into the existing boxes.