WHEN Wendy McLoughlin started up a session in a church hall to support families in the town she had no idea how it would grow.
But 25 years on and Hartlepool Families First is one of the biggest charities in the town and last year supported a staggering 13,000 Hartlepool residents.
Its projects reach out to all corners of the community, from the popular PlayBus, a playground on wheels for kids, to a health bus, toy library and special needs inclusion project.
Tomorrow, past and present staff will join invited guests at an event at the charity’s premises, in York Road, to mark the charity’s 25th birthday, and manager Paul Thompson heaped praise on everyone who has been involved with the charity and the “incredible” support of people in Hartlepool.
Paul, who has been in charge at the charity since 2007 and is also an independent councillor in the Seaton ward, said: “It was set up by the charity’s previous manager and founder, Wendy McLoughlin, as a way of making play more accessible.
“Twenty five years may sound like a lifetime but it’s not really and the manner in which the charity has grown in that time is incredible.
“The organisation has weathered some really, really tough financial times.
“We need to raise £400,000 every single year and the fact we can do that is a testament to the work the staff do but it’s also a testament to the unbelievable levels of support we get from the generous people of Hartlepool.
“At the start of every year we sit down and say how are we going to balance the books, the fact we do that is purely down to the sheer generosity of our supporters.”
After the charity was launched in 1998, it soon started to grow and more and more services followed as the hardworking staff branched out into the community.
The PlayBus made its first journey just two years later and the fantastic work of Families First didn’t go unnoticed.
Wendy was awarded an MBE in 2007 for her services to disabled children and was later given the Freedom of the Borough.
“We have developed into one of the biggest charities in the town,” added Paul.
“You don’t often have time to reflect but I did sit down and look back the other day and it’s amazing how things have changed just in the time I have been here.
“We have raised £2.1m in that time, got our new PlayBus thanks to the Mail’s appeal, got Children in Need backing, a donation off Michael Buble and got shortlisted and came third place in a national award scheme.
“Tomorrow is a celebration of everything the charity has done over the last 25 years, Wendy will talk about the beginning and we will have lots of food and entertainment.”
Charity chair Pamela Hargreaves, who has been involved with the chause for 11 years, added: “I’m immensely proud and credit to all the volunteers and staff who ensure that 25 years on the charity continues to grow.
“And a big thanks to all the people of Hartlepool who have donated or supported our events.”
For more information about the charity visit www.hartlepoolfamiliesfirst.org.uk.
HARTLEPOOL Families First boasted a brand new and “brilliant” playbus two years ago – thanks to the support of Mail readers.
The playbus appeal was coordinated by Paul Watson (pictured left), the Mail’s head of news, who tragically died after suffering a massive heart attack late last year, aged just 50, leaving behind long-term partner Pauline Scott.
Paul drummed up the support of the community who donated thousands of pounds and funded a new playbus for the charity.
And earlier this year, the charity’s manager, Paul Thompson, was moved to tears as he collected an award in memory of Paul at the Pride of Hartlepool awards.
“The work that Paul did didn’t just raise the money for the playbus, it raised the awareness of Hartlepool Families First,” he said.
“The amount of calls and enquiries we received on the back of the campaign was unprecedented.
“As an organisation we are, and always will be, indebted to Paul.
“We all became very, very good friends with Paul, he regularly paid us visits and was always on the look out for a story, he helped us out no-end.”
Children can enjoy hours of fun on the bus which features a soft play area, toys, a family section, an arts and crafts area and more.
To book the playbus, contact the charity’s team on (01429) 867016.