Helen Walton founded Alternatives over five years ago and is now chair of trustees.
Here she shares what inspired her to start Alternatives, what it stands for, how it has developed, and her aims for the future.
Q: What inspired you to start Alternatives?
A: In 2008, I listened to Joanna Thompson speak about how, 20 years earlier, she had founded Care Confidential, a group of advisory centres for women facing unplanned pregnancy. It was a very emotional talk, and I found myself asking, why can’t Stamford have a centre like this? I asked some of the women attending the talk to join me as part of a steering group – and twenty turned up for our first meeting, including some local GPs. We got together stats from all the local GP practices, and approached Philip Robson, a solicitor, to help set up a charity. We won the support of Stamford Hospital and they identified premises for us to rent. A group of friends and supporters helped decorate the building over a weekend. The first group of advisors went through an intensive three month training course. After 18 months of planning Alternatives Stamford opened its doors on 1 July 2009.
Q: Where did you focus in the early days?
A: We knew from speaking to other centres that the hardest task when setting up was encouraging women to come forward. All the local GP practices had agreed to refer women to us, so from the very early days we were advising clients. It soon became clear that 80% of the women coming to Alternatives were aged 19 or less, and some were under 16. So we felt we needed to get more involved with local schools and youth groups. This led to our education programme.
Q: So how has the education programme developed?
A: Research says that the biggest influences on teenagers are schools, peer pressure and social media. It’s a powerful cocktail that can push them into sexual activity at an early age simply because they believe they are expected to. We started with a table in the canteen at Stamford College and asked students to complete our survey. Interestingly it appeared that the boys felt pressured into sex by the girls who in turn thought that was what they ought to do.
We started running small group sessions at Stamford College focussed on building self esteem and the right to say no. We now have two staff in the education team, and the programme is supported by Mandy Rogers, a former Headteacher and one of our trustees. We run similar sessions at Stamford Endowed Schools, and have started developing an appropriate programme for primary school children in the summer before they start secondary school. The sessions were free at first but now we charge schools a fee to cover our costs.
We hand out cards and information about Alternatives at the schools sessions so they are all aware of the advice we offer. We want to expand the education programme to cover all local schools.
Q: How else are you reaching out to local teenagers?
A: Not all teenagers go to see their local GP, so we also offer free pregnancy tests and the C-card via our office at Stamford Hospital. The C-card entitles teenagers to free condoms, but first they have to have a 1:1 with one of our advisors so we have a chance to talk about their choices. This is a good opportunity to engage with young boys as well as girls.
Q: What other advice does Alternatives provide?
A: As well as advising on unplanned pregnancy, we have a longer programme called The Journey, for women of any age coming to terms with miscarriage, abortion or stillbirth, even when it was some time in the past. Our advisors are specially trained for this programme, and they are discovering that many women are facing a complex mix of issues.
Q: How has the Alternatives team developed?
A: We are lucky to have a very committed team of trustees with highly relevant experience. Philip Robson, partner at Daltons Solicitors, who helped set up the charity, provides legal advice. Steve Marsh, a retired actuary, is our treasurer. Sara Mann, a local GP, has a frontline perspective on teenage pregnancy and the impact of miscarriage, abortion and stillbirth on families in the area. Lesley Foulkes is a former nursery nurse, and Mandy Rogers a former Headteacher. Kate Kemp was our first full-time Centre Director, and Emma James-German is doing a great job covering during Kate’s maternity leave. We have four sympathetic and committed advisors and two people in our education team. Read more about the team here.
Q: Do you believe you are making a difference?
A: According to local GPs the rates of teenage pregnancy in this area are gradually declining, but there is a long way to go. At a national level though, abortion rates are very high. The schools and colleges we work with believe that when their students have effective sexual health and relationship advice, this leads to higher self esteem and a greater respect for each other. Students can become less distracted by emotional pressures and more focused on academic work. Women who have spoken to our advisers feel listened to and supported, but never pushed into a choice they don’t want.
Q: How can the local community support your work?
A: If you know someone who is struggling with an unplanned pregnancy, or has problems coming to terms with a miscarriage, abortion or stillbirth, then do suggest they come to talk to us. The office is open for drop-in appointments Monday and Thursday, and the mobile number 07913 052159 is monitored 24/7 if you want to call to book an appointment at a different time. Our advice is free, completely confidential and totally unbiased. We want Alternatives to be a safe place where people of all ages and backgrounds can talk and be listened to, not judged.
If people have time to volunteer to help with our fundraising events or office admin then that is greatly appreciated. And a growing number of people are making regular donations to Alternatives that help to provide a secure income to fund our work. Read more about how you can help Alternative’s work.