In the first of a week-long series focusing on the work of East Anglia’s leading children’s charity, MARK SHIELDS reports on Ormiston Children and Families Trust’s mission to support children, whatever challenges they face.

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Introducing Ormiston

Ormiston Children and Families Trust works across seven counties in the East of England to bring about its vision of “a world where every child is loved, nurtured and valued”.

The Ormiston Trust was founded by the family of Fiona Ormiston Murray, who died tragically in a car crash on her honeymoon in 1969.

The charity trust became a separate entity in 1992, and works to identify and respond to children’s needs, whatever challenges they face.

With 160 staff and around 140 volunteers, it runs more than 40 services in East Anglia, including children’s centres, visiting support services in prisons, family intervention projects and parenting support programmes.

Last year, it received £5.74m through fundraising, trusts and foundations, and public and statutory grants, and reached more than 130,000 children.

This week the Eastern Daily Press will be shining a light on the main strands of Ormiston Children and Families Trust’s work in the region, and explaining how you can play your part in supporting the charity’s work.

To find out more about Ormiston’s work, see www.ormiston.org, call 01473 724517 or email enquiries@ormiston.org

When Geoff Prescott insists the causes the Ormiston Children and Families Trust supports are not popular – “not the glamorous ones” – there is not a trace of bitterness to his voice.

“That’s the reality of the situation,” says its chief executive. “The challenging causes we take on are the ones that other charities and other groups will not.

“We are looking to crack really difficult problems. We don’t mind failing because we are trying. We are trying to crack the problems other people won’t face.”

What Ormiston is trying to crack – and, more often than not, succeeding in cracking – is how to offer support to children and young people on society’s margins: those affected by drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, imprisonment and the effects of poverty.

Last year, Ormiston reached more than 130,000 children in East Anglia – working in homes, schools, children’s centres and prisons – but funding is harder than ever to secure, and demand shows no sign of abating.

“What we do is identify and respond to the needs of children, whatever challenges they face,” said Mr Prescott.

“We deal with the most challenging children and carers.

“The kind of people who are never supported by other charities and not dealt with.”

“We try to focus on them in a holistic way, which means if we can’t solve the problem with the child on their own, we look for what is causing the problem and deal with the whole thing together.”

One of Ormiston’s flagship projects is its pioneering outreach programme for gypsy and traveller communities. It has been one of its biggest successes and an example of the charity’s determination to engage with groups that risk being forced out of mainstream society and forgotten.

“Gypsy and traveller families are subject to more racism than any other community in the UK,” said Mr Prescott.

“The children grow up with a lot of issues. They are 18 times more likely to die in the first year of life than other children. They have issues with literacy. They often leave school early because of problems with bullying or prejudice.

“It’s unjustified – like all forms of racism – and we work with them because others don’t.”

Ormiston teams work with traveller communities to engage teenagers in educational projects, offering them the chance to overturn stereotypes and showcase the positives of their culture.

One recent course in Cambridgeshire culminated in a photography exhibition which is currently touring East Anglia, with all participants receiving a GCSE-equivalent qualification to open the door into continued study or employment.

It is just one of Ormiston’s schemes to extend a hand to those who risk being forgotten or who may feel they are being actively cut out of society.

All but one of East Anglia’s prisons have visitor centres run by Ormiston Children and Families Trust, where teams of staff and volunteers work to maintain and strengthen bonds between families separated by the prison walls.

By reducing the destructive effect of a parent’s imprisonment on children, Ormiston tries to make sure families do not have to pay twice for an offence, and nor does society.

“When people go into prison, their families are often plunged into poverty, they suffer bullying and their lives are turned upside down,” said Mr Prescott.

“And the figures show that around 70pc of children of male prisoners will themselves be in the criminal justice system pretty quick.

“That’s a terrible thing for society.” Ormiston has led the way in developing special “children’s visits” to prison where, once a month, children can spend quality time with the parent in jail in as close to a family setting as possible. The visits, however brief, allow the parent an active influence in their child’s life by helping with school work or simply playing together.

The model has proven such a success it has been adopted by other authorities and charities and is now in use across the country.

Funding for the charity – and indeed the entire voluntary sector – is becoming increasingly hard to access, with people having less disposable income to donate to such causes.

At the same time, economic conditions mean the services Ormiston provides to some of those in greatest need are needed more than ever.

“We have been very heavily affected by the cuts,” said Mr Prescott, adding that in just a year the value of Ormiston’s statutory funding had dropped by 44pc, though it still remained the major source of income. Figures show that 98pc of funds received by the charity in the past financial year were put towards charitable expenditure, placing it among the most efficient in the sector.

“We have had to look closely at how we will raise money. The reality is that the challenging things we tackle are not the popular ones,” said Mr Prescott. “We have to raise money, and as conditions get difficult we are having to do more and more.”

“When we tell people about what we do, they are supportive and positive. But not enough people know about us – we are trying to change that.”

Part of Ormiston’s strategy has been a rebrand and relaunch, funded by a dedicated grant, in an attempt to make more people aware of its work.

A winter shopping bazaar fundraiser in London last week attracted the Duchess of Cambridge, her sister, Pippa Middleton, and Princess Beatrice.

But glamorous evenings in Mayfair are not Ormiston’s aim, Mr Prescott stresses, merely a means to achieving them. “This is not a business disguised as a charity,” he said.

“We have people here who want to help. We are trying to make a difference to people’s lives, and we are deadly serious about it.”

mark.shields@archant.co.uk

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