In the magical light of the sensory room, an 18-month-old girl crawls under a mass of glittering fibre-optic cable. 'It's Christmas!' she coos. With the help of a member of staff, a five-year-old boy with cerebral palsy joins her. Soon he, too, is smiling broadly.
The sensory room is just one of the facilities which makes the Ezra Family Resource Centre in Woolwich, London ('Ezra' is the Hebrew for 'helper') special. It is a haven of quietness and light, with its soft white cushions, bubble columns, glitterball, music and aromatherapy.
A rotating illumination of an idealised cityscape, looked over by a benign sun and moon, is projected against one wall. But this is a far cry from the deprived estate in which the Centre is based, within a ward which has one of Europe's highest indices of perinatal (around the time of birth) mortality, a classic indicator of poverty. While parents have responded positively to the services on offer, staff have come in from time to time to find windows smashed or graffiti daubed on the walls.
The Centre, formerly a day nursery providing care for children in need, underwent a dramatic makeover last autumn as part of Greenwich Council's decision to reorganise and refocus its support for young children and their families.
The Centre now provides a service for 100 families a week. Most of the children either have special needs or are on the child protection register.
Besides offering 15 to 20 daycare places, the Centre also provides a behaviour management group for parents and children, a speech therapy assessment clinic, and a holiday playscheme for young children with special needs. These workshops and groups also provide an opportunity for parents to meet. A comment often heard in workshops is, 'I thought I was the only one.'
The centre is also used to host contact meetings, where a parent meets a child who has been taken into care. For older children the setting might be the ball room, with a social worker keeping an eye on the proceedings at a discreet distance. Contact meetings also take place in the baby room. For some mothers this room will provide the first opportunity they have had to bathe their child. It is also a chance to show that they can look after the baby - maybe permanently.
The staff have to tread a narrow line between nurturing parents and letting them know when they have done something unnacceptable, such as biting a child; in a sense, they parent the parents.
As Karin Courtman, the council's manager for family support services, observes, the former nursery officers are now doing 'a much wider kind of work, including group work and going out to families'. Intensive training has been provided, pay scales have been restructured, and the staff have risen to the challenge.
One of Ezra's great strengths is the multi-disciplinary approach which draws together the expertise of nursery officers, family workers, social workers, health visitors and speech and language therapists. And then there's the dedication, commitment and creativity of the staff. To save money they redecorated the centre themselves. For example, in one small room, staff painted the walls a soothing blue and installed a couple of homely yellow armchairs.
And then there's the garden, a green oasis amid the housing estate. One end will be a sensory garden. 'We could plant jasmine, mint, lemon verbena, all plants that smell good,' says assistant manager Sharon Bowyer. 'All you need is imagination.' NW