Tuesday, 21 March 2017

New Horizons and New Starts with Comic Relief

The table is strewn with packs of Monster Munch and Haribos.  The smell of acetone from the nail polish remover burns my nostrils. A gaggle of teenage girls paint their nails, and apply make-up, expertly contouring and checking their handiwork in compact mirrors.  There's light-hearted banter and chatter filling the room.

This could be any teenage girl's bedroom in the country.  Except it's not.

I feel slightly uncomfortable and intrusive as I'm lurking in the background of the weekly Women's Group that takes place at the New Horizon Centre near Kings Cross, especially when I learn the golden rule: What happens in Women's Group, stays in Women's Group.

Suddenly, the girls decide that they will go around the room, taking it in turns to each pay each other a compliment.  They comment on each other's beautiful eyes, their smiles, their open nature.  Then they turn to Hazz.

Hazz is the Women's Worker, a full-time employee funded by Comic Relief.  It's the first time I realise that she's an employee rather than one of the group. The session is being led not by her, but by two of the young women in the group.  They cajole her into saying something nice about each of them, and without missing a beat, Hazz speaks eloquently about positive attributes each young woman has - whether it's incredible artistic talents, a non-judgemental attitude or complete reliability and dedication, it's clear she knows these girls inside out.

I know if I'd heard these affirmations said about me, I'd leave the session feeling a million dollars, but it's only after, after we hear these young people's stories it dawns on me what a lifeline these positive comments can be. For young women who have had their self-confidence and feeling of self-worth systematically sapped from them, this boost is incredibly important.

Women's Worker Hazz - left

After the session, we meet Farrah*.  She is breathtakingly beautiful, and if life had dealt her a different hand you could easily see her as a famous young British actress treading the boards on the West End.  She secured a place at a prestigious youth theatre group but unfortunately her alcoholism put an end to that.

She started drinking as a young teenage girl, like many of her peers.  However, coming from a devoutly religious family, this was not accepted and she was soon ostracised.  The drinking spiralled and she'd often go missing for days on end. Her increased drinking lead her to mix with the wrong crowd, and she found herself in dangerous situations. 

And then one day she was raped.

Her bravery talking about this was incredible.  Clearly still raw she didn't go into details, except to say that it never resulted in a criminal prosecution for the perpetrator.  The case was dropped.  It is agonisingly difficult to comprehend this injustice and the lack of closure this has given her.  The distrust of the law and the feelings of self-doubt.  

At her lowest ebb, she found New Horizons and with the support of staff like Hazz, she is putting her life back together.  A young girl, only a few years older than my daughter, let down by every establishment that should have been there to help her - her family, school, social services, the police...

The experiences this young woman has had in her short life are heartbreaking - death threats from her family, hospitalisation from suicide attempts, a brutal sexual assault and homelessness.  If it hadn't been for New Horizons, she genuinely doesn't know where she'd be right now.

But with help to get away from the environment she'd found herself in, support to find accommodation, counselling to deal with her mental trauma, and the re-building of her self esteem, she's now completing a course to start her own business as a make-up artist and has been sober for over a month. Her eyes shine bright with determination, and you can tell, she's turned a corner.

Senior Youth Worker, Steven offers a friendly and non-judgemental welcome to all new visitors

Then we meet Polly* and Lucy*. What's clear, is that each young women has their own story, but also just how easily it could happen to anyone. Without the support of a loving family, these incidents can be the catalyst for a life to quickly spiral out of control.  Lucy tells that she "owes more to the workers at New Horizon that she does to her own mother".

Lucy is a strong-willed and incredibly likeable person.  She's feisty and passionate and you can see how, when not channelled positively it led her to scrapes with the police.  She feels sure that if it weren't for Hazz, she'd be on the streets doing drugs right now.  Instead, with the right guidance and nurturing, she's now leading some sessions at Women's Group and is passionately standing up for women's rights.  She talks about how young girls are so often bombarded with cat-calls and derogatory comments in the street or in a bar, but that behaviour is not tolerated here.  All the visitors to the centre must treat each other with respect, and not only does this help the female visitors feel comfortable and safe, but it shows the young men that this behaviour is wrong and that women must be treated equally.  She's a feisty feminist ready to take on the injustices of the world.

Hazz has been working at the centre for 6 years.  Her three-year full-time contract is funded by Comic Relief.  She's modest when it comes to the success she's had here and the incredible impact she has made on people's lives. Without any judgement at all, she's always ready to listen and is one of those people who just always seems to know exactly the right thing to say.

The wide range of activities and life skills workshops on offer

The holistic approach taken by the staff compliments the practical help offered at the centre.  From housing benefit advice to serving hot meals and offering a laundry service, this is a lifeline to many.  Without your generous support of Comic Relief's fundraising, these kind of places couldn't exist, and the final safety net for vulnerable young people might disappear.

* Names changed

Special thanks to Ali for organising the visit, to all the staff at New Horizons and the inspiring young women who allowed us into their sanctuary. Check out the other posts from Chocolate is not the only fruit, Being Mrs C, Mad Mum of 7 and Missy B and Family. If you'd like to donate to this year's joint blogger effort of Team Honk for Comic Relief, please do so here.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Share a photo, Give a Meal to Trussell Trust Food Banks

It's easy to take for granted how fortunate I am.  There's always food in the fridge and the freezer, and even at the end of the month, there's always plenty of staples in the cupboard to cobble together meals. There are times when I've had a busy day and am too tired to cook and I can just pick up the phone and order a takeaway.  Or if we have something to celebrate, we'll think nothing of going out to dinner.

It's easy to forget that not everyone is this fortunate.  Today, in 2017, the use of food banks in the UK is still on the rise.  Food insecurity is a massive issue in the UK.

  • More than 8 million Brits live in households that struggle to put food on the table
  • 4.7 million regularly go a day without eating
  • 3 million people in the UK are malnourished
  • Food poverty in the UK is rising at alarming rates
  • The lowest income households in the UK only have on average of £3.00 per day to spend on food
  • Studies show a lack of flavor in diets reduces energy levels and creates negative thoughts.

These statistics, while shocking, are not so hard to understand when you think that most of us are only a pay check away from finding ourselves in this situation.  Family circumstances can change in a heart beat, and it's frighteningly easy for people to find themselves calling on a food bank for a crisis parcel.  It could be a redundancy, sudden ill health, a relationship breakdown, a mix up with benefits or debt problems...

Knorr have started a campaign which is running until midnight on 27th March 2017, where you can help in such an easy way, why wouldn't you do it?  Simply share a photo on Instagram, a black and white photo of your meal using the hashtag #FlavourForAll and Knorr will donate the value of a meal to the Trussell Trust to help someone who is suffering food insecurity.

If you need more persuasion, please do take a look at some of their videos which show just what a difference the Trussell Trust make.  Not just giving emergency food parcels, but offering a friendly face, a cup of tea and a chat, a non-judgemental ear to listen and practical advice and signposting to deal with the root causes.

Why don't you share your meal today and help give a nourishing meal to someone who needs it?

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

If You Go Down To The Woods Today...Gruffalo Spotting With the New App

Have you heard what's happening at forests up and down the land?  For several years now, the Forestry Commission have been in partnership with the well-loved Julia Donaldson tale The Gruffalo and Magic Light Production (makers of the animated film).  They have Gruffalo sculptures hidden in the woods to discover and trails to follow, but now, for the first time they have embraced state-of-the-art technology and bring us a new augmented reality app to bring the Gruffalo and his forest friends to life.

Admittedly, this new app is aimed at younger audiences (pre-schoolers and early-years) and at nearly nine I wondered what Ruby would think of it.  But it's such a dearly loved story, ingrained on this generation's psyche and the added benefit of using an app really appealed!  We are an outdoorsy family, so I had some qualms about bringing technology out on our walk, but actually, it worked really well and enhanced the experience rather than being a distraction.

We tried out the trail at nearby Wendover Woods (you can check your nearest forest and launch dates here). You can purchase a pack to accompany the trail from the cafe or the Go Ape Centre for £3 and although it's not vital for following the trail, it will give you items to help you on your quest, as well as extra materials to extend the fun such as animal activity sheets and fact cards.

We visited on a Saturday morning and it was reasonably busy, but with everyone going at their own pace there was plenty of space and we weren't rushed.  If you're going with pre-schoolers I'd recommend trying to go in off-peak times such as during a school day.

First stop was the cafe for vital re-fuelling - hats of the Cafe in the Woods for excellent gluten-free carrot cake!  You can purchase your pack here.

Cafe in the Woods make a mean hot chocolate.

A short stroll over to the play area, and you soon spot signs for the start of the trail.  This first section was very very muddy and we did see a few parents with buggies struggling - I'd recommend an all-terrain pushchair.  But after the initial mud-fest the rest of the trail was on well-maintained pathways and easy to negotiate.  A word of warning - this first short section is shared use with mountain-bikers and they can come tearing round so keep little ones and dogs on a short leash!

Clear, easy to spot signposting along the way

As you reach fork in the path, the mountain bikers go off on their own way, and you have the path to yourself.  The trail has lots of signs and clues to find along the way, indicating which of the characters you'll find next - will it be mouse, or owl or snake?  It was nice that you didn't need your phone until a little way along the trail when you come to the first augmented reality sign. It gave us chance to settle into the forest, enjoy the colours and smells and relax.

The bold, colourful signage is easy to spot, making the way and giving clues

While some children were racing on from one sign to the next, others were ambling, stopping for a splash in a muddy puddle or to pick up a pretty leaf. You really can go at your own pace.

The trail took us through parts of the forest we'd not explored before, past beautiful vistas and mossy glades and we all really enjoyed just being outdoors in nature on what was the first real spring-like day of the year.  We heard a woodpecker's hammering echoing around the forest and found huge piles of autumn leaves to kick through.

The whole trail at Wendover was about 2km but it didn't feel like it to us - I guess littler legs might feel it though?

Once we reached our first Gruffalo Spotter sign and were able to turn on the app, we were all captivated by the magical animation.  It was fabulous to be able to take shots via the app of Ruby with the characters, and of course, you are then able to share them on social media.

The animation is magical

The app is fairly straightforward to operate, instructions and guiders on the screen show you where to point it (tip - you have to be fairly close).

How the screen looks in app, with guiders showing where to point

Each time you find a character and bring it to life, you are rewarded with a fact card on the app - rather like a Top Trump card, giving details of the creature's attributes.  There are suggestions of activities to do aswell - can you stomp like a Gruffalo?  And at the end you earn a 'certificate'.

It looks as though each creature can only be animated once, with only one child that wasn't a problem for us, but I guess if you have siblings you may want to download it to more than one phone if you can.  I think if we want to do the trail again, we'll have to delete the app and reinstall it for another time.

We saw lots of children and parents enjoying the app, it takes a bit of practice to position yourself in the best place for a photo with the creature, but it was great fun.  Some younger children may struggle with the concept - they are standing in front of a sign and not seeing what the phone operator sees, so it's worth switching between adult and child having a go.

Enter Gruffalo stage right!
Be warned - he's HUGE. You can't even see Ruby hiding behind him!
We thought this new technology was a great addition to a forest day out and I'm sure some less outdoorsy people could be tempted into the woods with it. The app is free to download (just search Gruffalo Spotter), you don't need any data or connection to use it once you're in the forest, but because signal isn't always great in the woods, remember to download it before your visit.


Find out more on the Forestry Commission website.

Disclosure: We were sent an activity pack for the trail.

Country Kids

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Baebox - A Positive Subscription Box for Girls

For several months now, Ruby has been receiving Baebox subscription boxes. These monthly boxes are the trend at the moment and you can sign up to have everything from coffee, chocolate, books and  make-up delivered as adults, but as far as I know Baebox is one of a kind.  Aimed initially at tween girls from the ages of 8-12, they have now branched out into the teen market offering packages for girls from 13-15 and there's even a boys version on the horizon.  

Why are they different?  Well, because they follow the same aspirations as many modern parents have for their daughters and promote positive, motivational and inspirational messages.  There's so many more worries in the modern world when it comes to bringing up children and concern for emotional wellbeing is right up there.  With pressure about body-image coming from all angles - the media, advertising and the music industry right through to people airbrushing their lives on social media - it's hard for girls nowadays to feel comfortable about who they are.  Add to that the fact that we're still even now, trying to break the glass ceiling and contending with sexism and stereotyping in all aspects from subject choices at school, sport and ultimately career choices and it's a tough old world!

Baebox, as well as delivering age-appropriate treats which are not all about beauty and fashion, also delivers something much more important.  It delivers confidence.

Ruby's room is now full of little affirmations, hanging plaques and postcards with motivational message on.  And you know what?  I really think it's starting to make a difference.

I'm fairly sure I can't put it all down to the wonders of Baebox, but I think it's certainly helping and the change in Ruby's self-esteem and confidence is clear to see.  She's started doing much more sport - she's signed up to do a fencing course at school and she's enrolled for her indoor climbing certificate at the local leisure centre.  To see her scaling up a 10 metre high wall every week fills me with pride.  She's just been chosen to represent her school in a swimming gala and she's been elected to the Eco Council.  She's even joined a drama club and now sings and dances in front of audiences - something I never thought I'd see!

So, as a parent, you can perhaps see why I love Baebox so much.  But Ruby adores it too.  Each month, she eagerly awaits her delivery.  Like any child, she loves getting her own mail, and who wouldn't want a box of treats in the post?  It gives her something to look forward to, and she really enjoys all the messages inside the box.

Her confidence has grown so much, she's even decided she'd like to do her own Youtube videos.  This is one of her first attempts, and while she can see there's lots she can improve on, she's determined to do it all by herself and learn as she goes.

I'm so proud of her, and grateful to Baebox for giving her that confidence boost.

Each month's box contains different items.  This month you can see, was an organiser which is already being used to plan her activities and homework, a very cool water bottle which went straight to school with the very next day, an emoji lip balm (anything emoji is just fine with her!), some chocolate - a rare treat in the boxes, but it is for Easter - and a wall-hanging sign which went up in her room right away.  Previous months have included keepsake tins, money boxes, a yoyo, stationery and stickers.  The emphasis is very much away from hair and make-up which I think is completely right for this age.

She loves the styling, the packaging and of course the excitement of the postwoman delivering her mail. Occasionally Ruby gets something in her box which she isn't keen on, but that's to be expected I think - you can't please everyone all of the time!  She's keen to move up to the Teen box, but she's only 9 so I think there's plenty of time for that yet!

Baeboxes are great as gift ideas and you can either buy them as a one-off or sign up to a subscription for 3, 6 or 12 months.  Thank you Team Baebox for such a wonderful idea.

Disclosure: We were gifted a trial run of boxes but all opinions are our own.

Monday, 27 February 2017

DIY Gifts for your Dog

Nothing says 'I love you' like a homemade gift and the same applies for canines as it does for humans!  I've rounded up some of my favourites from the net so you can rustle up the perfect present for your pooch for their birthday or pin for later on for Christmas. Or let's face it, we love them so much why not just treat them?!

1. Homemade Peanut Butter Biscuits.

Dogs adore peanut butter, and these treats are easy to make and make a lovely gift, displayed in an attractive jar.  You can afford to make your whole dog-walking group some!

Or try this different, but equally delicious sounding recipe from Parent-Shaped.

Image Credit: Parent Shaped
2. Dog Walking Station.

You could go one step further, and load up your treats and other dog-walking essentials in this great DIY lead station from Dog Buddy. This is definitely on my list to have a go at.

3. Hardwearing Rope Toy.

Shop bought dog toys are expensive and generally don't last long, so try your hand at making this long-life rope toy.

Image Credit: Hands Occupied
4. A stylish dog bed 

For the dog with a spirit of adventure, get your DIY on with this fabulous bed from a vintage suitcase.  Max and Fodder shows you how.

Image credit: Mox and Fodder

5. Moisturising dog shampoo

This gorgeous shampoo uses natural ingredients and coconut oil to keep the coat in tip-top condition. A lovely treat to make for your pooch which will keep them squeaky clean.

Image credit: First Home Love Life 

What will you make for your hound? Let me know why they deserve a treat.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

A Series Of Unfortunate Events - A Netflix Series Review

I wrote recently how we'd been hotly awaiting the new Netflix TV series after devouring the Lemony Snicket books - the passion for all things ASOUE is sweeping through Ruby's school like wildfire!

Like all Netflix series, it's had us hooked for the start and we're veering from wanting to binge on it and watch episodes back to back, to delaying the pleasure and holding back, not wanting it to be over.  We've so far watched seven of the eight episodes, which are based on the first four books in the author's collection.  As the books in total number thirteen, we're hoping and praying for more great instalments to come.

It's been really interesting to watch it alongside Ruby who has read the books - personally I've only experienced snippets when she allows me to read a chapter or so as her bedtime story, the rest of the time she's engrossed in them by herself.  She's noticing differences from the written work to the screen adaptation - not major plot changes, just subtle nuances changed I'm sure for cinematographic reasons, and it's shown me just how much she's taken in from the books.  I often wonder if she just skips through stories to get to the end, she's a fast reader, but this has given me confidence she has full comprehension of what she reads.

The screen adaptation is a joy to watch and something the whole family can indulge in.  There's plenty of comedy material the adults can enjoy - who would have thought grammatical discussions could be so entertaining, and it's crammed with suspense and action to keep the kids enthralled.

Following the turbulent lives of the Baudelaire children, we're taken on a fantastical journey with siblings Violet, Klaus and baby Sunny after their parents are killed in a mysterious fire.  Inheriting a fortune when Violet comes of age, this makes them a target for the unscrupulous Count Olaf who attempts to gain guardianship to swindle the money.

The engaging child characters I'm sure are the main appeal to the younger audiences.  Violet, a teenage girl has an astute mechanical mind and is adept at thinking up and producing mind-boggling inventions to get them out of scrapes.  Younger brother Klaus is an intellectual, always engrossed in books and able to research their way out of trouble.  But by far our favourite character is baby Sunny, the sharp-toothed infant who's skills lie in her ability to gnaw their way out of danger.  Her baby gurgles are translated as subtitles, showing her to be a very astute judge of character - her dialogue is hilarious and I'm constantly marvelling at the acting talent of one so young.

The deadpan delivery of narrator Patrick Warburton is just genius, and the evil villainy and extensive, hideous disguises of Count Olaf played by Neil Patrick Harris will have you booing like you're at a pantomime.

Having already read beyond book four in the set, Ruby knows there are lots more weirdly dark adventures to come and we can't wait for more instalments on our screen from this team.

Have you been watching?  All episodes in this 8-part series are available to watch now on Netflix.  We can thoroughly recommend reading the books alongside it too, it's really enhanced the watching experience.

Disclosure: This is a featured post.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Vegan Butternut Squash and Sea Salt Seed Crackers

I was inspired by a recipe I saw in a gluten-free magazine from Eighty 20 Nutrition recently.  She makes her crackers with sweet potato but I'm not a fan, so I've been experimenting with alternatives and have come up with this.

These crackers are nut-free yet deliciously crunchy and still have that 'nutty' flavour.  They're gluten free and dairy free too and perfect for loading up with dips or with cheese (alternatives).

Kept in an airtight container they'll last for around a week - although not in this house!

I'm trying to eat healthier this year and stay away from too many refined and processed foods.  Many of the shop-bought crackers, breads and breadsticks - particularly the gluten-free versions - are loaded with added salt and sugars, so it's great to be able to add only the salt I want (or leave it off entirely) and know exactly what's going into our food.  My daughter loves these in her lunchbox with a little pot of hoummous and they are perfect for crumbling into homemade soups to add a bit of bite.


250g butternut squash - peeled and cut into chunks
450 ml water
400g of seeds - I use a mix of brown and golden linseed, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and chia seeds, but use whatever you have
2 tbsp psyllium husk - buy this online or from a whole food shop
2 tbsp coconut oil
Sprinkle of sea salt if desired


Preheat the oven to 160 degrees.  Line 2 or 3 large baking trays with greaseproof paper.

Place the prepared squash in a bowl with the water.  Cover and microwave on high for approximately 10 minutes until soft.

Meanwhile mix all the seeds together in a large bowl and stir to combine the psyllium husk.

Once the squash is cooked, drain the water into the seed mix and stir very thoroughly.  When the water is added, the husk powder has a tendency to form into jelly-like lumps, so make sure it's well combined.

Set aside for a few minutes, and add the coconut oil to the butternut.  Blend to a smooth, lump-free consistency.  Any lumps will result in soggy crackers - and nobody likes a soggy cracker!

Now combine the pureed squash with the seed mix and stir until thoroughly mixed through.

Spread your mix onto your paper-covered trays as thinly as possible, spreading out and pressing down with the back of a spoon.

Sprinkle with sea salt and cook in the oven for approximately 50 minutes until golden brown and crispy.  I find it helps to have the oven door slightly ajar for the last 5-10 minutes to allow any steam to escape and make sure the cracker gets nice and crisp.

Leave to cool then break into pieces.  Once they are absolutely, completely cooled, store in a airtight jar.

What would you eat with yours?