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“I saw a pram on the side of the road and wanted to give it to a family that needed it, so I called the local maternal health nurse to see if they knew someone who would need the pram and they said yes,” says Angela Wood, Director of Big Group Hug.
It’s a simple idea, to help vulnerable families by gifting them pre-loved baby and child goods, but it’s an idea that, in 2014, led Angela to create a volunteer-run organisation that does just that.
“Big Group Hug is a community led organisation that rehomes donations of preloved baby and children goods for families with children aged zero to 12 years old,” she says.
“When people are finished with their items, they donate them to us in good condition and we will rehome them with vulnerable families – people experiencing financial hardship, family violence, intergenerational poverty.
“Our only criteria is that people ask for help, and they ask through a formal network like a maternal health nurse, or a hospital (we have maternity units ordering through us), it could even be a GP.
“We are also trying to get childcare centres to reach out to us for their families that need support.”
In the 2017/2018 financial year, Big Group Hug helped 1,562 families, assisted by 197 volunteers (with a total of 5,943 volunteer hours logged) and saved 5,619 items from landfill.
Angela is not alone.
There are sister organisations like Big Group Hug spread throughout Australia, all with the aim of getting the community involved in ensuring preloved baby and child goods don’t end up wasted in landfill, but instead in the home of a family that needs it.
Clair Harris was a staging host, a local mum who accepts and sorts donations, for St Kilda Mums, before she founded Tassie Mums.
When she moved to Tasmania four years ago, she struggled to find something similar.
“There was nothing like it,” she says.
“So, I started Tassie Mums to meet a hole that keeps getting bigger.
“We are growing, which is unfortunate as it shows that there is a growing need.
“Tassie Mums started with me doing bundling sessions on my dining room table and we have now been in a space that we call our headquarters for about a year.
“We help about 16 to 18 organisations across Tasmania.”
I had seen this mum walking around the neighbourhood with her kids, and she had requested help from her maternal health nurse. And I was her neighbour, and she never asked me for help, and I didn’t even think to offer her help. This is the thing; we don’t really know what other families are going through.
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Families in Australia
One in six children, or 739,000, under the age of 15 live below the poverty line in Australia. That statistic comes from Australian Council of Social Service, Poverty in Australia 2018.
A third of sole parent families, who rely on one income, live below the poverty line.
The report says, “From an international perspective, we remain in the top half of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries with our poverty rate 14th highest out of 36 OECD countries.”
“Effectively, we are all two pay cheques away from homelessness,” says Angela.
“If you lose your job, you probably have enough cash reserves to pay for rent for a month. But after that time, money coming in and money going out, that imbalance can happen quickly, and you can lose your home.”
Angela lists off the families that have found themselves in such financial hardship.
“Women who leave family violence with absolutely nothing,” she says.
“Often in domestic violence situations, there is financial control, so the women leaving have no access to cash, even if their husband has money.”
There is also homelessness, intergenerational poverty, families with gambling addiction or alcoholism which contribute to financial hardship.
“Then there are asylum seekers, which are a really vulnerable group of people,” says Angela.
“They arrive with no rights, no access to support.
“They fall between the cracks, they can’t get Centrelink, some can’t work and if they have a child, they can’t access some of the government support programs.”
Angela says, “Our philosophy is around giving parents something that takes away some of that stress caused by financial hardship, so they can focus on their child.
“You know, if you are worrying about how you are going to be able to buy nappies, you are not going to play with your baby.”
Social workers working with vulnerable families often contact organisations like Big Group Hug or Tassie Mums to get access to the donated pre-loved items.
The reality of families in need
“We recently had a request for shoes,” says Clair.
“It wasn’t even a full clothing bundle request that we often receive. Just shoes.
“It turns out the young child was getting around in socks and thongs in Tasmania, in winter, which is pretty cold.”
Angela recalls a mum who Big Group Hug supported.
“We had an international student. She was living in someone else’s home with her six-month-old baby and they were about to evict her.
“While she was talking to her social worker, she fainted. It turned out the reason she fainted was that she was not buying food for herself, she was buying formula for her baby.
“She literally had nothing. We provided formula for that baby for a year. And everything else.”
Another story, Angela remembers is about a little boy who just wanted to feel normal.
“A little boy from a Middle Eastern country who witnessed his cousin being shot in front of him because she was a girl going to school, so he was heavily traumatised.
“His mother was seeking help for her two-year-old, and he came along to our warehouse and he saw what we had.
“He quietly asked his mum if she thought that we might have a basketball for him, because that is all that he wanted to feel normal.”
It’s not only about providing preloved items.
Angela says that Big Group Hug provides activity packs to drug rehab centres.
“Often children of drug addicted parents take on the role of a parent,” she says.
“So, when the families are reunited, we provide these activity packs for parents to learn how to be parents again.”
Clair says that sometimes it is more than just about having stuff.
“There are these beautiful stories of new migrant families that come to Tasmania and they really appreciate the toy packs that we do, as it allows children to enjoy themselves but also gives the parents a little break which we all know we need as parents.”
How to help (or get help)
“When I started this, I was going into people’s homes to donate goods, and I got a request for a mum,” says Angela.
“I looked at the request and I recognised the address. It was for a mum who lived two doors up from me.
“I had seen this mum walking around the neighbourhood with her kids, and she had requested help from her maternal health nurse. And I was her neighbour, and she never asked me for help, and I didn’t even think to offer her help.
“This is the thing; we don’t really know what other families are going through.”
But what if you think you know a family who needs help?
“If you know someone who you think might need help, offer yourselves to them,” says Angela.
“With the lady two doors down from me, I went up to her and said that I have all this stuff I don’t need anymore, and could she take it off my hands.
“I was buying new nappies, taking them out of the packaging and putting them in plastic bags to give to her so she didn’t feel any shame or humiliation.
“We really focus on the fact that it isn’t a handout but a gift.”
Clair says, “For families who are struggling, or if you know someone who would benefit off our support, I would recommend reaching out to a local service in your area, like a child and family health nurse or even a school counsellor.”
“While we can provide goods, the service can provide a whole range of services and support for that family.”
Angela’s next goal is to get childcare centres to reach out for help on behalf of their families.
“We would really like to encourage childcare centres to be a requester,” she says.
“To reach out to us for help as they are on the coal face and we want to help the children that need help.”
State Services offering assistance to families
Olivia’s Place (Warragul)
Goulburn Valley Pregnancy (Shepparton)
Mums Supporting Families in Need