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"It's All About the Students"

How a St Andrews-based organisation connects students to the community

Although St Andrews is full of expensive hotels and fancy restaurants, this affluence juxtaposes with endemic poverty. Families First — a St Andrews-based organisation that works with children in the Northeast Fife area — exists to bridge the gap. 

Laura Turnbull, Families First Office Assistant, explained, “St Andrews looks superficially to be a very wealthy area. People tend to assume there is a lot of wealth [...] but there is an awful lot of hidden poverty.” 

Turnbull herself has four children. She graduated from the University in 1998, and her husband works as a professor of physics and astronomy. “I've seen my children's friends being supported by Families First,” she said. 

Families First was started by the local Baptist church 22 years ago, before becoming an independent organisation in 2008. Even still, the same church on South Street still lends out rent-free offices and spaces for student interactions. 

The organisation runs three major programs: the befriending service, youth group, and family support service. All children and families involved are those with additional support needs. “Those support needs are sometimes the things you would expect, like autism and other learning disabilities or physical disabilities. We are also supporting some children where their additional support needs are more of a family situation [...] low incomes, mental health in the parents, that sort of thing,” Turnbull said. The organisation’s family support service caters to parents and their own support needs. 

“94 per cent of the children we support have more than one adverse childhood experience,” said Turnbull, which can directly impact children as they progress into adulthood. “Experiencing domestic violence, learning and physical disabilities, substance misuse in the family […] It all adds up to become a much more difficult situation,” she added.

Families First's befriending service consists of 43 students ages five to 12, each of whom is matched with a volunteer who shares similar interests. The pairs meet biweekly for 90 minutes and the children choose their activity. 

“[The volunteer can] give them someone to talk to outside the family and outside school — that can make all the difference in giving them a different view on their lives and their futures,” noted Turnbull. “It's an opportunity for them to hang out with a great role model.” 

Turnbull attested that “Families First is a brilliant way of connecting the students and university to the local community.” Caroline Brecher — a third-year management student — agrees. She has volunteered with Families First since her first year, when a friend recommended she get involved. 

“It can be quite a new experience for volunteers, dealing with some of these children from very different backgrounds often from themselves,” said Brecher. “If we weren’t in St Andrews, it would be much more difficult to bring the students in.” 

“Originally, I got into Families First because of the ‘town-and-gown’ complex that I was experiencing during my first year,” she explained. “It made me want to get involved with the local community of St Andrews and not just be with the students and the university.” 

She also volunteers with the befriending service, where a volunteer spends one-on-one time with a child. She said she “really formed a personal bond” with her matched student.

Initially, the child she was matched to — who has a developmental disability — was “pretty much non-verbal with [her].” Now, they’re inseparable: “It's been rewarding being able to work with him one-on-one. I’ve been able to see him, in real-time, come out of his shell. A lot of that is to do with the work Families First has done,” she said.

“Being challenged to form a connection with a kid that has some social setbacks was an approachable challenge, and one I knew I had support for,” she added.

Families First has a relationship with the local aquarium, Craigtoun Country Park, and botanic garden, which provide free passes. “If you are from a very low-income family, you don't get to go to the aquarium because it's very expensive,” said Turnbull. “St Andrews is the perfect place because there is so much to do, and, of course, [there’s] the students.” She urged, “It's all about the students […] the students are Families First.”

Brecher, who went to the aquarium last weekend said, “I had never been to the St Andrews aquarium. For no good reason — I have always meant to. This was such a good excuse, especially to be with this kid who was so excited to see everything. It was such a special way to experience my town for the first time.”

Brecher's assigned child is passionate about space. “He is such a wiz. He will take any opportunity to quiz me on fun facts he’s taught me. So much so that I’ve started to keep [...] notes in my phone of all the things he's told me so that I don't disappoint him.” 

Last year, Families First set up a tour of the St Andrews Conservatory for Brecher and her “child,” accompanied by two professors. “Activities like that really got him out of his shell. He got to see that people actually care about what he is into […] It also gave him a chance to show off his skills. The professors were so impressed by the questions he was asking,” said Brecher. 

Along with the student body's volunteer involvement, many societies have also gotten involved with the organisation through fundraising, such as the St Andrews University Charities Campaign, Kate Kennedy Club, Fellowship of St Andrews, the University Lacrosse team, and ‘Candrews’. 

Brecher enjoyed her experience within the befriending service so much that she chose to get further involved with Families First by also participating in the youth group program. This service focuses on slightly older children, ages 12 to 16. 

“It's a different experience. Rather than chilling with one kid, you are supervising a big group. The kids mostly organise the sessions themselves. They’ve introduced me to some new activities,” said Brecher. 

The Families First program provides training and support for its volunteers. Brecher said, “Everyone who works at Families First is supportive and receptive to any feedback you might have.” At the end of every session, there are volunteer feedback forms. “There is always someone keeping track of your experience,” she added.

“The students are very enthusiastic,” said Turnbull. “We train them very well, so they know how to deal with various circumstances. They are very well supported […] We try and cover as many situations as possible that you might come across, but also, we explain how we will support you.”

“Everyone who works there is so kind and selfless. It reflects well on the greater St Andrews community,” said Brecher.  

The youth group also meets every fortnight. There are four groups organised by Families First, each consisting of eight children and six volunteers, so the participants still receive a high level of attention.

It’s just as rewarding for the volunteers, too. “When else would I spend an afternoon making slime or baking with little kids?” Brecher mused. “It's super fun because I never know what we are going to do. I show up and they tell me.” She added, “I've also met other student volunteers who do it. I don’t know if I would have met them otherwise. It's been a way to meet new people too, as well as giving back.”

“I will have been with ‘my child’ for three years by the time I graduate,” noted Brecher. “That is something so special to leave behind. It is such a unique relationship […] It has enriched my experience here as a whole.”

Photo: Laura Turnbull


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