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Building blocks for a better future

Above:Gary Malcolm and his four-year-old son, whose name is also Gary, share some fun and learning, with Red Cross and other parents and youngsters.

Early education can be a minefield for kids and their parents. Gary Malcolm and Gayel Baxter are two parents who say that getting involved with Red Cross has made a big difference for their families. It means vital support, developing new skills, sharing experiences and kick-starting a love of learning for their children.

Gary Malcolm is one of several fathers in the Red Cross HIPPY - Home Interaction Program for Parents and Youngsters - at his children's school in Ipswich, south east Queensland. Gary notes that there are more mums than dads at the parent group today, "I don't know why that is," he says with a chuckle, though it does not worry him at all.

Through the program men are taking an increased interest in their child's early education. In the six weeks that Gary, his wife Suzanne Keeley and their four-year-old twins have been in the program, he has already noticed exciting changes. "It's really good for the kids," says Gary. "Gary Jnr is picking up stuff really fast. He now recognises colours and shapes and he's getting better at talking."

Red Cross actively involves parents in their child's education, preparing them for the challenges of starting school. Gary says it's a fun and relaxed environment, with benefits for the parents too.

"HIPPY teaches us and the kids at the same time. One week we do art and craft. The next we work on reading. That's helped me because I can't read or write very well," Gary says.

Gayel Baxter says she has also found the program to be really helpful for her young son Lucas.

"The first time I went, I loved it," says Gayel, with a big smile. "It's very educational. They teach him about shapes, sizes, numbers, letters and sounds. It has made a big difference."

Moving to Australia four years ago from Waikato in New Zealand, Gayel and her husband Henry are working hard to give their family a new start. Henry, who identifies as Maori, works long, hard hours fixing trucks and trailers as a fibreglass technician.

After a year and a half managing a takeaway food store, Gayel decided she needed to look after her four kids full time. One of the benefits of the parents and youngsters program is that anyone who would like support can access the program for free.

"We're a one income family. You have to be careful of what you spend," Gayel says.

Both Gayel and Gary's families attend the program once a week. While the kids learn a new song, or build castles in the sandpit, the parents have a chance to catch up and share valuable tips. "It's good to share experiences," says Gary.

It hasn't been an easy ride for Gary, Sue and their children. Gary and Sue's two older sons both have learning disabilities. Gary says recently, he has been out of work on a pension after a serious knee operation. "It's hard but we manage," he says. Gary maintains a positive outlook, saying he is really keen to get back into the workforce and that the program is really helping.

"It's brought our family a little bit closer. I won't look back."

"My daughter Hayley is still in nappies. Some of the parents told us what to do and now she's learning to use the toilet," Gary adds, confirming that small things can make a big difference.

The program would benefit many other families, says Gary enthusiastically. "I wish they had it at every school. The tutors are wonderful people."

Like Gary, Gayel gets a lot out of the group sessions with other parents, including some new friendships.

"I really enjoy it. I've met other mums. We've all got different stories to share," said Gayel. "I learn something new every week."

The Brotherhood of St Laurence holds the license to operate HIPPY in Australia. The Home Interaction Program for Parents and Youngsters in funded by the Australian Government Department of Education.

Photo Credit: Australian Red Cross/Tertius Pickard