It is with great sadness that we announce that Margaret Harrison, founder and life president of Home-Start, the UK’s largest voluntary family support charity, died at home on Sunday 16th August 2015.
Margaret began the charity in Leicester in 1973 and led it for 25 years. In the 1980s Home-Start was the fastest growing social franchise in the UK, spreading from the East Midlands to all four corners of the UK and into British Forces base in Germany and Cyprus. In 1998, Margaret also founded Home-Start International in response to requests from more than 22 other countries wishing to adopt the Home-Start approach. She was awarded an OBE in 1989 and a CBE in 2001.
Today, Home-Start supports more than 33,000 families and 70,000 children each year in the UK in 288 local communities. Another 45,000 families are supported in 22 countries around the world, from Norway and Holland to Sri Lanka, and from Tanzania to Japan and Australia. This achievement, from one woman, in less than 50 years is astonishing.
The charity is based on the simple premise that if parents get support and friendship from another parent, they will be better equipped to learn to cope with the many difficulties life can bring, and will be able to give their children the best possible start to their own lives.
During Home-Start’s 40th anniversary celebrations in 2013 Margaret told the Leicester Mercury: “When my three children were young, I was involved in voluntary work with parents and children here in Leicester – in children’s homes, with the Family Service Unit, mother and toddler groups and the Child Guidance Clinic. Invariably, parents, many of whom were involved with social workers and other statutory agencies, would ask me to visit them at home ‘so we can really talk’.
“What I learned was that what they longed for most was to have a friend – another parent who would understand them and, in an informal way, would help them feel more confident as parents.”
She was granted a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship in the early 1970s and used it to research family support in America. On her return, she set up Home-Start Leicester and it started supporting families in November 1973.
The voluntary nature of the relationships between Home-Start supporter and struggling parent was crucial (and still is): Margaret recognised that the offer of help and the acceptance of that support was the basis of a very strong partnership that would help parents cope through their darkest times, build resilience of their children and, crucially, increase the amount of love and fun within the families.
James Sainsbury, chair of trustees for Home-Start UK, who has been with the charity since 1996, said “The 25 years of Margaret’s leadership seemed blessed. There was patronage from Princess Diana and then Princess Alexandra; endorsement of Home-Start’s approach from archbishops, authors such as Sue Townsend, academics, army colonels, ministers and prime ministers; and constant enquiries from groups wanting to set up a Home-Start in their community; recognising the immense value of the approach. Always, at the heart of the charity, were children and families.”
Her own family were always closely involved. At her Pioneers’ Day to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Home-Start, her three children and their families underpinned the whole day – helping her organise, run and record the event, and look after the guests from around the world. Together, they also sang for the assembled Pioneers, and decorated the tables with flowers from her garden. Those blooms continued a tradition of always bringing flowers from home to her offices, to keep her connection with her family while she was at work. The first volunteers from 1973 still visited her home and joined her family gatherings.
Rob Parkinson, chief executive of Home-Start UK, said, “Margaret remained actively involved in the charity. Regular updates with me, attending the Home-Start international Convention in Oslo in 2014, and accepting as many invitations to speak at the AGMs of local Home-Starts as she could. Most recently she agreed to judge an award in her name for outstanding family support amongst Home-Start volunteers. The fact that she was doing this as her own health faltered and recovered, and while she cared increasingly for Basil, her beloved husband of more than four decades, is testament to her phenomenal energy, kindness and resilience.”
She is survived by Basil, her children Jane, David and Clare, grandchildren Rhianna and Laura, Oran and Rowan – and by more than a million children, helped since 1973 by that the charity she conceived, nurtured and brought up.