“At that age they’re learning their social skills, they’re learning to communicate with one another, to share, to get away from their parents.
“Their mummies maybe sit there at the other end of the hall. For some of them that’s the furthest they’ve been away from their mothers.
“Sometimes you see it takes them a wee while to go away. It prepares them for playschool. The next step would be playschool.
“By the time they reach three they’re used to mixing with other children. They know what sharing’s about. It just prepares them a wee bit.”
Carol Peck describes the scene at Caw Parent and Toddler Group, which has been going strong now for nearly two decades in the heart of Nelson Drive.
Through a glass panel in the hall next door a group of toddlers, young mothers and childminders are merrily navigating those important ‘early years’ of the children’s lives in a safe and comfortable environment.
Ms Peck and her fellow founding volunteer Carol Grieves explain that back in 1995 there was nothing like this in Nelson Drive to meet the needs of young families.
At the time the main parent and toddler group in the Waterside was in Clooney Hall, about a mile-and-a-half away from Nelson Drive.
“We walked it usually, we just took them in the pram and walked it,” says Ms Peck. “Now a few of the Churches have one and so there are people who come to ours and go to another one on Monday and another one on Tuesday, so they are valuable to people.”
The true value is something its volunteer founders knew intuitively back in the mid-1990s. But now a growing body of research is gradually catching up with this intuition.
Professor Ian Kennedy wrote in a report on children’s services across the United Kingdom in 2010 that: “These early years are absolutely central to the developmental fate of a child, yet until recently they have received virtually no attention.
“A huge cultural shift must take place. Resources must be invested in the early years of children, concentrating on those most at risk, whose parents/carers are least able to provide what the child needs.”
It’s a credit to the Caw group that it’s clearly meeting these needs, despite the fact that it receives very little statutory funding, and is mostly reliant on the generosity of the public and local businesses to meet its running costs.
Ms Peck tells the Sentinel: “We raise our own funds or apply occasionally, when we need it, to various organisations. At the moment we’re applying to The Honourable Irish Society.
“We’ve no real overheads. Just the everyday toast and tea and juice and stuff. We could do with replacing some toys so we’re going to apply for funding for that.”
Coffee mornings and raffles have been a necessary staple in order to raise cash for the group’s essential needs over the years. And people invariably give generously.
“The last one was at St Columb’s Park,” says Ms Grieves. “We raised money for the toddler group. We’ve raised money for other people too, like Macmillan, the Meningitis Trust, different charities.”
The group meets every Friday from 9.30am to 11.30am in the Caw Centre next door to the Nelson Drive shops. But only during term time.
It’s aimed at infants and toddlers from birth to three years and helps prepare the young children for the daunting leap from home to nursery and playschool.
Ms Peck says: “The parents stay with the child. Or grandparents. Parents, minders, grandas, daddies, whoever comes with the child, minds that child, and we just facilitate that.”
Ms Grieves adds: “From birth to three would be the children we deal with. We’re before the nursery and playgroups.”
Erin Hurst is a Nelson Drive resident and a returning patron of the group. She finds the service pretty much indispensable.
Her six-year-old attended the group on a weekly basis a few years ago. Now Harrison Hurst (aged 2) looks forward to coming along every week to play with his new friends.
Erin says the loss of the service would be acutely felt.
“I think it would really affect him, you know, because he enjoys coming. As soon as he wakes up in the morning and gets his wee shoes on he’s looking forward to playing with the other babies. It makes them far more social,” she says.
The atmosphere at the Caw group is also a major draw.
“It’s brilliant. We love it. It’s very relaxed, as you can tell, and everybody helps each other out. A lovely atmosphere. We’re local as well so it’s very handy,” she explains.
Little Ifuoma (aged 2) and Chisom (aged ten months) Agoha have been coming down to the Caw group from Sevenoaks for a few weeks and they also love it.
Mum Sandra says it’s a great place for them to interact with other children.
“This morning my daughter, who is ten months, [Chisom - currently flying around the room in a babywalker], when she was in the walker she used to go backwards but now she can move forward, so, it’s an exciting experience for them,” she says.
Sandra says her oldest Ifuoma will soon be going to nursery school and that the toddler group is great preparation.
“I think its will give her an advantage to have been able to mix with other children and socialise. See the way, she’s running, she’s excited, she’s happy,” she says.
The two Carols say the original intention was to establish a group for people in the estate.
But now families from all over the city bring their children every Friday.
Ms Peck says: “Initially, when we set it up we wanted to have people from the estate because whenever we needed a toddler group we had to go away down the Waterside or whatever.
“So that was the reason for setting it up to help people in this area.”
But as Ms Grieves points out: “We’ve got ones from Eglinton, Newbuildings, Kilfennan, just everywhere.”
Ms Peck adds: “We’ve childminders who come and bring maybe two or three children each as well. So, they’re just from all over the city as well.”
The feedback - as evidenced by Chisom, Ifuoma, Sandra, Harrison and Erin - is a great comfort to these unsung heroes who have kept the group going for the past 19 years.
Says Ms Peck: “Just this morning, one of the girls, Lorraine, was saying she wouldn’t know what she would do, if this wasn’t here. She likes it here because there aren’t so many children.”
This kind of positive reaction makes the volunteers’ day.
“We really appreciate it. It makes it worthwhile for us. We just come in and we make the tea and the toast, put away the toys. It’s worthwhile,” she says.
It hasn’t always been easy. To get things going, the group had to petition all sorts of organisations and businesses to raise funds.
Sadly, some of these companies such as Fruit of the Loom and Adria, are no longer with us. Not so, the Caw Parent and Toddler Group, telling you everything you need to know about the resilience of those who’ve aided the endeavour over the years.
When they started out they didn’t have adequate storage space for all the toys. So, the two Carols and their colleagues had to cart them all over every week from The Rosses sheltered housing complex nearby, which had some spare space at the time.
“Whenever we started this building was different. It was a smaller building and we had no storage space. At the moment we’ve a huge big cupboard in there and we just put everything into that cupboard,” says Ms Peck.
“Before that there was a sheltered housing accommodation called The Rosses and they let us have a cupboard in there. So we would carry the stuff back and forwards.
“Rain, hail or snow we were carrying the toys down from The Rosses to here.”
The group have come a long way from then and now have up to 23 to 24 children attending with their guardians every week.
And whilst things have changed for the better physically, in terms of the hall and amenities available, they’ve also changed culturally.
Ms Peck confirms that fathers from the estate and beyond are now regular attendees. That wasn’t always the case.
“Very seldom, would we’ve got fathers in the past. They maybe would’ve come to pick them up or something. But now, more and more, we would get fathers actually bringing their kids and staying with them as well, which is daunting for a man, when it’s a room full of women.”
She reckons this is at least as much to do with the practicalities of raising a couple of young children as much as with the lessening of old-fashioned machismo attitudes between 1995 and 2014.
“If they’re in charge of the children, maybe the mummy’s working. If you’ve to toss up between having two toddlers at home and two toddlers here, here wins hands down! “It gives you a chance to have a wee bit of space and time to yourself,” she says.
Another aspect of the service, which can be easily forgotten amidst the joyous children, the toys and the nursery rhymes, is that it provides a social outlet for mums, dads, grandparents and other guardians as well.
One can imagine that if you had a dilemma or issue entirely unrelated to young parenthood there would be a good chance someone in the Caw Centre might be able to give you a bit of helpful counsel.
Sandra Agoha, who has been living in Londonderry since 2010, hails originally from Nigeria.
She finds the group a great way of meeting other mums with which to have a chat and share advice.
“It also makes it better for me to be able to meet other mums. You meet a lot. It’s not just for them. It’s a help for me as well,” says Sandra.
On May 5, 2014, the group celebrates its nineteenth birthday. And in 2015 it’s the big one. So what are the plans?
“We’ll probably have a bit of a party and hopefully a reunion,” says Ms Peck. “All the children who came here as babies and they’re all eighteen or nineteen now.”
This includes Ms Grieves’ own children, as she explains: “The first day we started I was pregnant with my son and he’s 18 passed.”
Ms Peck adds: “We’ve had people in here now with their own children, who were toddlers when they came here.”
It might be tricky persuading some of those bashful 18 or 19 years old back for a reunion but at least they’ve had forewarning!
Until then the Caw Parent and Toddler Group will continue to provide the same sterling service it has been for nigh on two decades now.
The group meets from 9.30am to 11.30am in the Caw Centre and its £1 per adult with all children admitted free of charge. Newcomers are also very welcome.