Creating opportunities for children, families and communities to thrive
Caren Parkinson has been working at Halifax Opportunities Trust for almost 15 years, in the Children and Families team. Now, leading the provision with around 100 staff based across many Children’s Centres and Nurseries throughout Calderdale, Caren’s passion and dedication to Early Years has seen her role and the Trust’s delivery adapt and grow.
As an influential figure within the industry and throughout Calderdale, built from over 35 years’ experience working with children and families in Health, Family Support and Early Years sectors, Caren has carved a rewarding career. Not without its challenges, Caren has innovated the way HOT delivers Early Years and Family Support services to ensure the best level of care is maintained and so the people we work with have opportunities for a brighter future.
Children at the centre
Caren has always cared for children and their wellbeing, from taking a mothering role looking after children on her street as a child and being a Cub Scout leader to standing in for practitioners at our nurseries to this day, children have always been at the centre of Caren’s focus. She started her professional career as a NNEB, Nursery Nurse for the NHS, which led to a role in Family Support for the local authority; then a step into management as a Children’s Centre Manager in 2008, which is where her involvement with HOT began. She became the Children and Families Lead for the Trust in 2012. Caren comments:
“working with children is so rewarding and the reason I have remained in the industry and will continue to do so.”
Her experience and knowledge, combined with a deep commitment to understanding the unique needs of the families we work with, has helped Caren to introduce initiatives and implement innovative programmes that are influential in driving positive change. With a drive for ensuring opportunities are accessible and valuable for all, Caren puts this down to the autonomy working in the third sector brings:
“I believe that working in a flexible and innovative organisation has helped the Children and Families provision to grow. We understand what our families are experiencing, so being able to develop activities or services that match their needs is important; over the years the way we do things has constantly evolved and that’s because we’re always looking for new ways to support and engage with the community.”
A key activity includes the Parent Champion volunteer programme, which has given local parents a voice to help shape the delivery of Children and Families services, offering a different perspective to how projects are developed and giving volunteers the opportunity to build skills for work and life. Many volunteers started as full-time parents and are now in full-time employment.
Caren is also really proud of the Youth Group that was set-up to support young people, aged between 6-12, with addressing mental health. It has recently been awarded funding from the Mayor of West Yorkshire, which will give the team further resources to work with young people in Park Ward and throughout Calderdale.
Building the provision
When Caren first started in her role as Children’s Centre Manager, the industry was experiencing a lot of change. At a local level HOT was involved in some major commissioning activities, taking on many of the operations within children’s centres, while the local Council oversaw much of the management. This meant that Caren was able to gain deep insight into the Trust’s delivery and understand the contractual expectations set out by the Council.
In 2014, this experience was invaluable as the way Children and Families delivered its services changed. HOT was in a position where it had to bid for a contract to continue Children’s Centres delivery, so funding could be allocated across our sites throughout Calderdale. Caren and her peers developed the bid, which was successful, giving the charity a strong foothold in early years. Caren recalls:
“Putting the bid together was challenging, as there was so much we wanted to evidence and propose. A lot of hard work went into the tender and I am so proud that we were successful. It secured the Trust as a valuable community organisation and people started to take us more seriously.”
The contract is ongoing today and has meant that HOT is able to offer a consistent and reliable service for families and communities across Calderdale. Now in the tenth year, there have been many challenges and achievements that have led to taking an innovative approach to the way delivery is planned and carried out in this time. As pressures on the sector rise and budgets become stretched, each year Caren has had to make difficult staffing and delivery decisions that are impactful for many, but have demonstrated resilience and adaptability.
This resilience was highlighted in the COVID pandemic when Caren ensured Children’s Centre nurseries remained open to key workers and children from vulnerable families, with the remainder of the service working from home, but ensuring accessibility for families. The Family Support service also remained operational, with over 5000 welfare telephone calls being made every week, to check in with families registered with the service. These calls were invaluable to parents, which alerted staff to a range of needs that they were then able to support families with to ensure their needs were met; providing activity bags for children, food parcels and delivery of other practical items.
Combine this with an ongoing sector recruitment crisis, which is a result of the strain the pandemic placed on practitioners, Caren has a lot to manage on a day to day basis. While this can be stressful at times, Caren always reflects on purpose:
“Seeing the impact our services have on the lives of local people is very rewarding and is why I still work in early years.”
Caren’s work throughout her time at HOT and predating this has been driven by passion, resulting in many achievements both personally and professionally. In her role as Children & Families Lead she has built a network of OFSTED Outstanding nurseries that offer high quality settings for children aged from 0-5. This has not gone un-recognised to external organisations and partners, either.
Working closely with partner organisations and Calderdale Council to ensure services are delivered in line with local strategies and matching national initiatives, Caren is a well-known figure throughout the Borough. Her dedication to staff and families in the COVID pandemic, as well as being a good citizen giving life saving CPR and medical assistance a number of times outside of work hours, has seen her winning an Outstanding Individual Award at the Community Spirit Awards 2022 and a Courage Award, respectively. Caren reflects:
“The highlight for me is seeing the difference our Children and Families work has made in Calderdale. Making a difference is the greatest reward.”
Caren was also awarded with a West Yorkshire High Sheriff Certificate in November 2022 at our most recent AGM and Review of the Year, recognising her contribution to the community. Through this, Caren was awarded with the honour of joining the Royal family at the first Garden Party under HRH King Charles III reign on Tuesday 9th May 2023.
While already celebrating a number of achievements, Caren isn’t done quite yet. She is driven in her work in SEND (special educational needs or disability) and has identified a growing requirement in Calderdale for a specialist facility for children with special needs or disabilities. She hopes that before she retires, she is able to establish an Early Years centre for SEND, acknowledging the support local families need and creating opportunities for dedicated roles in the field.
“I hope we can get a SEND Nursery up and running in the next few years. Working with children in our nurseries and through our Referral Creche we’ve been able to identify requirements; a specialist unit it’s something that isn’t currently available for families at the moment, and the support would make such a difference to their lives.”
As we celebrate our 21st Anniversary, we are looking back on the many opportunities we have created for individuals, families, businesses and the community. This means something different to everyone, and Caren’s involvement and influence over the years has seen opportunities present in even the most challenging times. To her, ‘creating opportunities’ means:
“Different opportunities for learning and development so children (and families) can have the best possible start in life.”
Through the years and the many changes the Trust has experienced, Caren has helped to drive progress and adapt; growing the provision and making it accessible for all. One thing that has remained constant is the holistic approach taken to supporting individuals at any stage of their life. Caren often sees parents graduating from an ESOL class, delivered by our Inclusive Integration team, then joining the Parent Champions programme or working towards an Early Years apprenticeship.
A brighter future
Our 21st birthday doesn’t only mean we’re looking back on our impact over the years, it gives us the opportunity to look forward and establish plans for the future. Caren is positive that the future has lots of great things in store to ensure the 1,700 people we reach each day are able to build a better life.
“There’s always something happening at HOT. From a new project to new spaces, we’re really innovative in our approach and I think this will accelerate in the future; supporting local people even more and strengthening our position as a community anchor in Calderdale.”
Learn more about our 21st Birthday celebrations
As well as the contributions our connections are kindly providing to tell our story, we have lots of other things planned. Learn more on our official webpage, via the button below.