I'll chain myself to gates to save Sure Start centre


The head of the only Charedi-dedicated Sure Start centre has pledged to chain herself to its gates to save it from council funding cuts.

Michelle Ciffer runs the Hershel Weiss Children's and Family Centre in the heart of Salford's strictly Orthodox community.

It is one of 3,600 centres introduced by the Labour government to provide health education and social support for pre-school children.

The two-storey building was funded by Salford City Council as a satellite service for the local Lower Broughton centre with the aim of reaching a community culturally disinclined from using Salford's 16 other centres. Now Hershel Weiss caters for three times the number of children using the main Lower Broughton centre.

However, celebrating its third birthday on Wednesday, Mrs Ciffer feared the effect of budget cuts being voted on the same evening by the city council. Hershel Weiss has already felt the impact of a two-year freeze on its £101,000 allocation from Salford.

A mother said that her art class was a highlight of her week

Neighbouring Manchester City Council has already halved its Sure Start funding, announcing that some centres would have to go private or close.

"I will chain myself to the railings if anything would threaten the centre, but I don't think it would come to that," she said. "Salford City Council have committed to carrying on Sure Start centres. They acknowledge what's going on here."

To illustrate its worth, the centre published an impact assessment this week, showing a big take-up for its creche facilties, perinatal counselling and adult education services.

More than 900 children are registered with Hershel Weiss. It has to hire a school hall for health promotion events and takes over a Cheshire theme park for its annual Succot family day out.

But its ultimate attraction is in tailoring mainstream services to the needs of the large Charedi family. For example, its clinic with adjoining creche looks after the children while the mother sees a doctor.

NHS cuts have ended funding for a religious Jewish post-natal depression counsellor. The centre's three well-attended child immunisation clinics will also go by the end of March.

"They told us that we've got a nurse but no money for administration," Mrs Ciffer said. "We can't manage. We cannot run a clinic without someone to handle the appointments, writing up notes and monitoring the service. You wouldn't go to the doctor that didn't have a receptionist.

"It's very sad for me because its something I've developed. Hundreds of women were coming through. It showed there was obviously just an issue about a suitable place for them to immunise their children."

Esty Simon volunteers at the creche when demand overwhelms the paid staff. She has seen the "important role" of the centre in enabling mothers to pursue adult education courses.

"Young mothers tell me they have gained so much. They have been able to bring out hidden talents.

"Some women have post-natal depression but a lot just don't have family support in Manchester because they come from Belgium or Switzerland, attracted by low living costs and good schooling."

A 36-year-old Salford mother-of-nine said her art class at the centre was a highlight of her week and she had received offers from people wanting to buy her paintings. "I'm just happy within myself because of the centre. I felt lonely before coming here when the weather was very cold and I wasn't able to go out with my children.

"I wouldn't go to another Sure Start centre because their sessions are mixed men and women, the food isn't kosher and the staff often don't understand my community."

Salford councillor Peter Connor, who helped set up the centre, said the council was examining ways of increasing its financial commitment in the wake of government cutbacks.

"The mayor and I are extremely involved in making sure the Hershel Weiss and other centres get as much protection as possible."

Salford is supporting a major health promotional event on Purim, offering children's activities while parents get health checks.

Hershel Weiss has had to part-fund the event because of the council's budgetry constraints.

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