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In the latest in our series of interviews with charity leaders doing great work with digital during COVID-19, we spoke to Ruth Pearse, CEO at Parenting Special Children 

1. Tell us about Parenting Special Children and your role there as CEO

Parenting Special Children (PSC) is a local Berkshire based charity providing specialist support services to families of children and young people with special needs and disabilities (SEND) across the county. The overall aim of our charity is to improve the well-being of families of children and young people with the whole range of special needs and disabilities, including those who have suffered early life trauma (foster and adoptive families), living in Berkshire and surrounding areas.

Set up over 14 years ago, the charity has supported thousands of parents/carers and more than 900 professionals through its various services. In 2019 PSC supported 2,500 Berkshire families at least one, with 44% of families accessing more than one service.

During Covid-19 PSC has offered specialist support to over 300 families through online parenting workshops. And over 500 families have accessed helpline emails and calls; support groups for vulnerable families via Zoom; sleep workshops and clinics; weekly emails and phone calls to foster carers and adoptive families via our trauma and attachment service.

My role at PSC is founder and CEO, 14 years later and I am even more excited about the services that we offer to families, I am particularly proud of the team at PSC, 95% of whom are parent/carers of children/young people with SEND who bring not only their professional experience (social care, education, health) but lived experience which is so valued by the families we work with. I am also proud of the reputation that we have in Berkshire across all sectors and most importantly the families we support. I am very thankful for the team of trustees at PSC who meet monthly and also bring lived experience to the role as well as a wealth of knowledge and experience, particularly in finance and business which is much needed at any time but particularly during this time and moving forwards.

2. Where has COVID-19 changed how Parenting Special Children uses digital?

COVID-19 has changed the charity massively, we have managed to take our digital plans to offer more online workshops and courses for parents from one year to six weeks! We had very little digital footprint and now we offer online workshops and meetings through Zoom and webinars every evening (best time for parents to access online courses) and even having three in one evening on different topics. One week we had 150 parent/carers on webinars or Zoom meetings.

COVID has been devastating for families and individuals that we support. However, it has taken us on a journey that has urged us to be more agile, more responsive and to ensure we are continuing to listen to our service users.

We have had to embrace technology without excuses and quickly, it has enabled us to support families at a time when they have needed it more than ever. I am excited because we have managed to bring the uniqueness of the face to face workshops that we offer to an online version. We continue to provide the personalisation of peer support through chat boxes and individual connections. We have increased our user base as we are now able to offer our services when it’s more convenient to people if they are unable to attend face to face workshops. Moving forwards we will always offer a digital option and will be open to new forms of technology, responding in a much quicker and confident way.

3. What impact has this had?

The impact that moving our services online has given PSC is a new confidence and boldness to try new forms of technology and to respond much quicker than we would have done before. This has opened up new areas of revenue streams for the charity which is very important as charities face financial uncertainty. The use of technology has benefited the staff who have been able to work how and where they need, we have always been flexible but this has really helped our staff who may need to spend more time with their own families. I certainly won’t be expecting to travel across Berkshire for meetings which can be delivered as effectively via a range of digital means and providing more time for working rather than travelling.

4. If you could go back in time and advise Parenting Special Children about digital before the crisis began, what would you say to them?

Don’t hold back! Be confident with technology, don’t compare yourself to the big corporates who have IT departments because even the most experienced IT organisations have had to adapt and be more agile. Keep looking forward, keep being excited and creative about new ways of working and technology. Keep listening to your service users. No excuses.

Since lockdown began we’ve supported 844 families through online workshops, and our helpline (cloud phone system & email support). One of our families told us:

‘Parenting Special children always hold great courses, so pleased and amazed that they are also going to hold virtual ones to support parents in these challenging times’

5. What advice would you give to charities who need to move forward with digital during the crisis?

Charities that don’t start thinking about their digital footprint will find it harder to seek funding, harder to maintain revenue streams and introduce new ideas to generate income. Covid-19 has shown that we can adapt, that we learn quickly when we need to and that we have to be more tech savvy or we won’t survive. There is support and resources available that support the voluntary sector, the only thing that can stop the charity moving forward is you – don’t be afraid to try.

6. Do you think the sector will be changed in the long term as the result of the crisis and if so, what role will digital play?

Immensely so. This will be a catalyst to digital change and organisations, staff and users will expect to have a different way to engage, to work and to support.We can’t go back, we need to move forwards. Charities are going to need to help support more with poverty & mental health for example and that demand will increase. Digital can help to reduce costs, increase income streams and help the charity sector stay strong and have a more sustainable future.