'Families struggle in silence': Charity founder aims to reduce poverty stigma

Smile founder

Smile London and Essex founder Maria Quaife - Credit: Smile

A charity founder from Harold Hill has shared the importance of reducing the stigma of poverty, talking about it openly and ensuring no child feels left behind.  

According to End Child Poverty’s (ECP) 2019 to 2020 statistics, 35 per cent of children, which is more than 7,500, aged up to 15 in Romford were living in poverty. 

As part of the Recorder's There With You This Winter campaign, which is raising awareness of support on offer to the community through this winter, this newspaper spoke to the founder of Smile London and Essex about poverty. 

Growing up in Harold Hill in a low-income family, Maria Quaife, 29, began Smile London and Essex as a project in 2016, before gaining charity registration in 2018.  

In 2019, the charity was given a three-year grant from the National Lottery Fund, which runs out this October.

Raised by her single dad, who looked after her and her two brothers on a low income with disability benefits, Maria now hopes to lessen the strains of poverty for other families.  

She said: “We worked on the scenario that the whole of our area in Harold Hill were in the same sort of deprivation, but realised when we grew up and went to school that we were worse off.”  

Maria said non-school uniform days were often the catalyst of social exclusion as her family would rely on ill-fitting hand-me-downs and others would be sporting the current logos.  

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This inspired Smile’s appeals, which aim to make sure children living in poverty in Havering and the wider area “are not excluded by their peers”.  

Current appeals which provide items to children free of charge include tools for school - where children are kitted with a full school uniform - a Christmas, prom and Easter egg appeal. 

Smile

Smile's Christmas box appeal saw more than 2,000 boxes donated - Credit: Smile

Maria, who is six months pregnant, said: “We want the kids to spend more time in school and have a better education that will lead to higher education, better jobs and getting out of the benefits cycle.”  

ECP’s 2019 to 2020 statistics said that 33pc of children in Hornchurch and Upminster were living in poverty during this period, while in Dagenham and Rainham 45pc of children were living in poverty - more than 12,300 children.  

Maria said: “When we think about poverty we think about street poverty, so when we discuss how many children live in poverty you have to realise that our poverty is behind closed doors.  

“Children are living in hostels, overcrowded housing, some kids don’t have beds for themselves and are sleeping on mattresses on the floor.” 

She felt a lot of families “struggle in silence” because they are scared to explain their situation and worry it will lead to social services intervening.  

“It’s totally the opposite, we help families before it gets to children being looked after by the authorities.  

“We work on referrals, so unless families open up and communicate no one is going to know they need the support.”  

Maria said it is important to “reduce the stigma of poverty in the area” and enable families to “open up and ask for support”.  

Free coats on rail

Outside Smile's office at 52 North Road, Romford, families who are struggling are encouraged to take a free coat from the rail for their children - Credit: Smile

Further research by ECP states that most children in poverty have at least one working parent in their household.  

Maria said: “In Havering most families have one working adult, but they can be in zero-hour contracts or working low wage, and the pandemic has thrown them.”  

In the last year Smile has seen an increase in 740 children being referred and within the last few months a large increase in the number of single dads.  

The worry for Maria is that “everybody is only one pay check away” from being in poverty.  

She believes the work she does helps, but is aware that it is hard to erase poverty. 

The charity is now offering a grab bag full of fresh food for £1.50, and there is no limit to how many can be taken for that price.  

Looking forward, Maria said the charity is keen to secure further funding after the pandemic prevented the charity from carrying out its planned activities.  

Donations can be given to Smile via this link: https://www.paypal.com/donate