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Helpers who keep the home fires burning

Twins Nicholas and Gemma are not identical - but they are equally troublesome if they both want the green Play-Doh at once, particularly if their mother is making their tea at the time.

So single mother Janice Blyther, 44, is delighted that every Monday afternoon she has as extra pair of hands to keep the 3-year-olds busy. The hands belong to Norma Chapman, a volunteer with Home Start, the charity for mums which inspired this week's Government scheme to aid vulnerable parents.

"We've pinpointed stressful times, and teatime is one of them," says Norma.

Norma spends three hours a week at Janice's two-bedroom flat in Wallington, Surrey. Janice, who was an accountant until the twins became a full-time occupation, finds the unpaid help invaluable.

"My family are in Essex and my friends have their own lives," she says. "Norma's like the cavalry turning up."

Norma, who's in her fifties and lives with her retired husband Alan in nearby Cheam, says her experience of raising her own three boys to adulthood is her main qualification. A series of training courses with Home Start have added to her skills.

She says: "The charity is not full of middle-class do-gooders. You do get the odd twinset and pearls but volunteers come from all walks of life."

Norma and Janice agree that Home Start is doing a great job - and are worried by talk of a more formal government alternative.

"I don't like the idea of this Mums' Army jackbooting its way into people's homes," says Norma. "The Government would be better off putting funding into things like Home Start.

"If it's official it's not the same. Mums tell us things that they wouldn't say to their social workers, even though they know we'll pass on anything serious."

Norma is keen to carry on. She says: "You get to cuddle babies. But you don't have to buy them shoes."

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