“This is our Network and I look forward to us all working together to achieve our common aim of providing an ever improving service to the people we must never forget – the children using our centres week by week to keep in touch with both their parents.” Mary Lower – founder and President of NACCC  (Autumn 1991)

The message above was Mary Lower’s message to the original 26 member centres back in 1991 when NACCC achieved charitable status. Mary’s experience and actions in 1984 started a movement that has helped hundreds of thousands of children stay in contact with family members and people important to them.

It was just going to be local…

I met with Mary recently to reflect on the last 25 years….

She told me “When I first had the idea to set up a contact centre in Nottingham it was to deal with a local problem in the city. I was sitting as a Magistrate in Nottingham and we had this seven-year-old boy who wanted to see his dad but mum wouldn’t have dad in her home as she had a new partner and Dad lived in a bedsit which was not ideal.”

“Because of Tony’s story (Mary’s husband Tony had grown up not knowing his dad and always thought it was his fault until they were reunited 34 years later) I insisted that we retire while they found somewhere…”

“The difficulty was that the little boy was at school during the week and the father was working – so we needed somewhere impartial at the weekends – other than McDonald’s! The probation service had a small scheme but that was when reports were required and in this case there weren’t major problems.”

“So we went to the retiring room and waited and waited and another magistrate said to me, ‘you would have thought the churches would do something about this Mary’. And like an idiot I went back to church and said to Hamish Bailey our Minister ‘shall we help?’…” 

“It’s too good an idea to keep to ourselves Mary”

“… it was never going to be more than just our centre but one of our volunteers had links with the national church magazine Reform

“They said ‘it is too good an idea to keep to ourselves Mary – if you write an article, I’ll make sure it gets printed’ – so I wrote 500 words and to my amazement started to get telephone calls and letters saying ‘how can we do it?’”

“That’s how it took off…”

Mary’s ‘Reform’ article (1986) that triggered the start of the child contact centre network 

NACCC recognised as a grassroots social welfare charity – achieving the Guardian Jerwood Award in 1994

Mary was awarded The Guardian’s Charity Award on behalf of NACCC which aimed to recognise the achievement of individuals in helping establish and build social welfare charities.

Mary told me that when she arrived at the ceremony she hadn’t expected to win…

“Tony (my husband) and I were invited to the Jerwood Guardian Awards. Eunice Halliday, the Director of NACCC had written the application and we were shortlisted.”

“We went to the awards ceremony in London and each charity’s literature was on display. Ours looked very ‘homemade’ compared with the information from the other charities, so I thought ‘well there’s no chance we’re going to win, let’s just enjoy the occasion’…”“So we relaxed a bit and enjoyed the speeches and complementary drinks! Anyway, in the afternoon, Tony my husband gave me a nudge as they were announcing me as the winner! What a shock! The judges had seen past the glossy brochures to what was being done at grassroots level and made their decision on that basis.”

Sharing national policy to support the network

The main role of NACCC at this time was to share common sense and policy with contact centres and be a national voice for the network. Mary explained: “We were concerned that workers at centres were being asked to give evidence in court and so contacted the Lord Chancellor’s Children’s Act Advisory Committee (Children’s Act 1989) which then issued instruction that contact centre volunteers should not be asked to give evidence…”

Throughout the next few years Mary and her small team organised regional meetings to enable centres to network and solve problems on a local level. Despite huge cultural differences throughout the country the ethos remained that there needed to be somewhere to help children keep in touch with both parents and not experience the guilt that Mary’s husband had felt for so many years…

Are you interested in volunteering, making a donation or spreading the word to your friends and family….?

Be involved in the journey, support NACCC’s #lostparents campaign…

Ruth Miles, NACCC (November 2016) 

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