When I was seven, I spent an afternoon in a children’s home. It was part of my Brownie Child Minder badge.
Arriving at the cavernous Victorian house, I stepped inside to an unfamiliar smell: disinfectant and the remains of lunch. I was there early to help serve the children’s tea.
The rooms were vast, high ceilinged, and painted in bright, garish colours. They weren’t restful: they were different. They startled me.
As I stepped into the biggest room I’d ever seen, I looked around. At one end was a stage. On it was every child’s dream: a giant toyshop with everything to play for. Best of all, a lot to play with. It was only when I got closer that I realised that most of the toys were cast-offs – unwanted, grown tired of, abandoned, and shipped up here. They lay in a communal pile, everyone’s and no ones.
Next I was led to the other end of the room, where a circular table had been set up for tea. Around it were about 15 little chairs. It was like something out of Goldilocks. On the table were brightly coloured cakes, sandwiches, squash and biscuits. They were served on even brighter plastic plates. The whole effect was psychedelic. What drab planet had I been living on till then, with my parents, brother and sister?
Finally, in walked the children – in line, some holding hands. They were younger than me – probably about three or four. They pulled out their chairs and sat down. At the signal from an adult, they began to eat.
I poured the squash and walked around the table, passing sandwiches and cakes. I remember the noise, but nothing distinct said.
Then something happened. The children fell silent. The adult touched a child on the shoulder. The little girl looked around. I followed her gaze.
There, in the doorway stood a man. The girl jumped up from the table, and pushed back her chair. It fell over in the rush. Running across the room, the girl threw herself into the man’s arms.
“Dadda, dadda,” she cried.
And you know, I nearly cried too. I could cry now. Every face around the table followed the child, and lingered in the doorway. In an instant, the room fell away; the toys fell away; the tea fell away. I felt it too.
These children were hungry – but not for food. Their eyes said it all – boys as well as girls.
They longed to be that lucky child. The one who was loved, in that moment, for all to see: for herself, and no one else. The man in the doorway was special to her. Every parent has that privilege.
A social services spokesman was right, when he spoke on the radio recently: “Children’s homes can provide everything, but a child’s need to be loved.”
Rochdale may have dominated the national news, but here in Oxford, Operation Bullfinch demonstrates what may step into the void, when parents and institutions fail. Vulnerable children seek nothing more than to be loved for themselves. Well, don’t you?
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