A husband-and-wife team from Sunderland aim to revolutionise the mental health and wellbeing support available to parents caring for children with additional needs.

Tracey and Dan Huggins spotted a big gap in the system after their new-born daughter Delilah was diagnosed with additional needs 11 years ago and their lives changed overnight.

Although healthcare provision immediately kicked in for Delilah, as parents they were left struggling to come to terms with the news and unsure how they would cope with the new pressures on their life.

“We left the hospital holding our four-month old daughter, not even knowing what her life expectancy was,” says Dan. “The healthcare provision for the child was clear and a well-run process but there was nothing to support the parents who suddenly face a world of new challenges.

“We had no idea how we’d fit work around clinical appointments, manage to pay the bills, find time to care for our other two children and a multitude of other worries. It was traumatic and we felt very much on our own.”

After years of struggling through, Tracey’s mental health began to decline and she started a blog as a way of making sense of her experiences as a parent carer.

She was overwhelmed by the response she received from readers who shared her frustrations and decided to pour her energy into bringing about change by providing the type of support she wished had been available for her family.

Passionate about finding a way to be taken seriously in discussions around mental health, she signed up to earn herself a degree in counselling and began putting herself in places where she could be heard.

And now Tracey’s dreams are becoming a reality with the launch of Choice Wellbeing Service CIC, a new support organisation which will offer parent carers counselling, well-being and fitness activities, help getting into work or a change of career, training, advocacy and more.

Tracey said: “Parent carers are currently a deprived, overlooked and under-appreciated community. We simply keep on going until we can’t anymore. But our aim is to give parents their power back so they can begin to make choices for themselves again and can use some of the talents and skills they’ve acquired in their role as expert carers.

“We want to become the go-to service for parents after their child has had a diagnosis so we can be there to catch them at such a painful and stressful time. It’s taken us years to understand the system and we want to pass that on to make it easier for others.”

Tracey and Dan worked with social enterprise experts from the North East BIC to set up their community interest company at St Mary’s & St Peter’s Project in Springwell and now have a team of 11, comprising parent carers and non-parent carers.

Tracey added: “The first thing we did was turn to the BIC. I knew they’d help us to think it all through properly. The whole team has been behind us every step of the way with friendly advice on how to structure, finance and run the business. They’ve put us in touch with so many contacts who’ve helped us to make things happen.

“We knew it was a massive undertaking but the BIC made it feel possible. Whenever we felt like we were coming to a standstill they’d offer a stepping stone to move us on. They’ve been our biggest cheerleader.”

The BIC’s advice on potential sources of funding has led Choice to secure £15,000 in grants from the Lottery Community Fund, Barbour Foundation, International Care Board and Public Health England to get their start-up running.

Support services are being launched in Sunderland and once established, the team aims to extend its reach across the North East then nationally in the next 10 years.

Paul McEldon OBE, Chief Executive of the BIC, said: “Tracey and Dan are perfect examples of a growing number of social entrepreneurs who are taking matters into their own hands to bring about positive change in the world.

“Our team loves nothing more than to share our knowledge of the business world and expertise in social enterprise to give social start-ups the very best beginnings. We cannot wait to see the difference the Choice team makes to the lives of parent carers and their families and we’ll be at their side whenever they need us.”

To find out more about the BIC’s work around social enterprise visit ne-bic.co.uk or call the team on 0191 516 6200. For more information on the support offered by Choices visit choicewellbeingservice.co.uk