“Mill Grove Saved my Family”

Mill Grove Saved my FamilyAn ordinary afternoon

It was an ordinary Thursday afternoon and I had driven to East Ham as usual to collect one of the two families that spend that evening with us each week. I had given my trademark knock at the door of their terraced house and the youngsters were getting ready: collecting what they wanted to bring with them, changing from their school uniform, and chatting with each other. So I had a few minutes to chat with their mother.

It so happened that I had just completed my annual task of compiling a diary of 2007 and trying to encapsulate the daily life of Mill Grove for a newsletter. With this in mind, and having noticed that her family was mentioned in this diary week by week, I asked her how she would describe the relationship between her family and the Mill Grove family. She paused to consider how long we had known each other, and we concluded that it was the best part of ten years.

Then without hesitation she said, “Mill Grove is a life-saver: a family life-saver. It saved my family.” This came as a bit of a shock, as I was looking for something rather more prosaic. In fact I had in mind the idea that perhaps she might think we related in some ways as if we were “cousins”. So I had to pause to reflect on what she had said. What had we actually done for the family, I thought?

With the diary of 2007 so fresh in my mind, I recalled some of the shared activities over the past twelve months. The four children had come to spend an evening with us every week. We had come to collect them without fail in our car. They had joined us on our holidays in North Wales. We had celebrated their birthdays. We had taken the oldest of her children to university on his very first day. The children had come with us on some trips into London, and also when we went to visit some of our farming friends. Occasionally when the mother had been worried about one of the children we had listened to her and talked with her. Two or three times we had been to meetings with her at a school.

Rocket science?

These were the thoughts that prompted me to respond, “It’s hardly rocket science!” By that I meant that if our family had been a life-saver, it wasn’t a very complicated way of helping. It didn’t require a great deal of funding, training or treatment programmes, for example. “Yes, it is rocket science!” she retorted.

When I asked what she meant, she explained that there was what she called “big rocket science” and “little rocket science”. The former was about grand schemes; the latter about very practical and minute details which fitted exactly what her family needed and at the right time. This process of family life saving wasn’t something hit and miss, artless and spontaneous: it was actually very carefully worked out, however simple or basic the actual arrangements might seem.

She continued, “You have always been there for us. We know that we can trust you. Others who have tried to help us have come and gone, but Mill Grove is still there. We can rely on you. That’s what makes all the difference. I simply do not know where we would have been without you. In fact I don’t think we would still have been a family if you hadn’t been there for us.”

As you will have gathered by now, I had got a lot more to chew on than I had bargained for, and the children were now ready to get in the car. So that’s how the conversation ended.

Since then I have continued to ponder what she said right up to the present time, while I am waiting in a snowbound Chicago O’Hare Airport hoping that my connecting flight to Colorado Springs will not be delayed any further. And here are some of my thoughts.


“Little rocket science”? What, I wondered, is the “scientific” element of what we have provided in the sense of the knowledge, professionalism, planning and skill? Well, it so happens that Ruth, my wife, is trained in family therapy and counselling, and that we have clinical experience in social work, residential child care and allied fields. Mill Grove is an extended family situated in a locality where we live among neighbours as equals, but there is also a considerable knowledge and professional base. (Change the metaphor for a moment and think of the swan that seems to glide effortlessly across the water, while its feet are paddling purposefully beneath the surface.) Bearing this in mind I guess you could argue that there is a bit of science involved.

There is also the tradition of Mill Grove: a place and a family that has been there seeking to help others for over a century. I suppose you could say that this is a good firm base for little rocket science. (I have just written a chapter for a book arguing that good-enough residential child care can provide a “secure base” in the sense described by Dr John Bowlby in his work of that title. One of the functions of such a base is that it constitutes a foundation for exploration and discovery.)

And then there is that most underestimated of disciplines, community development. I only wish that it formed the core of all vocational studies and courses (whether medicine, social work, social care, education and so on). One of the main premises of community development is that the resources for well-being, growth and development lie within the client or the community that is asking for, or needing help, rather than in the professional or the institution that is seeking to help.

It begins with potential rather than needs, and always sets its face against creating a dependency relationship. Mill Grove rejoices when children, young people and families discover and draw on their own resources and relationships rather than continue to rely on us being there. Until now I hadn’t thought of this as an approach that helps little rockets to take off, rather than remain stuck on the ground!

And where does our faith commitment fit in to little rocket science? It has developed over the ages and in a range of cultures and traditions, and it has stood the test of time. It is not a faith of grand gestures and schemes, but about a God of small things, where the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to little children. Not about sending astronauts or explorer satellites into the farther reaches of the solar system, so much as rejoicing in the faltering first steps of those bogged down with anxiety and low-self esteem.

Small is beautiful

It was thus that I have pondered, and no doubt the mother’s words will cause me to think a lot more. If she is right, then we need a lot more “little rocket science”. We should revisit the ideas that small is beautiful and that intermediate technology holds the key for the future, and recognise that communities and belonging consist of simple acts of kindness and practicality that often go unrecorded and even unremembered.

On the forms of the airlines and conference organisers for this lecturing trip to North and South America there is invariably space to describe my occupation. Little rocket scientist? Family life-saver? Somehow I don’t think these would mean anything to the officials responsible for reading the forms. But I am in no doubt that they meant a great deal to the mother. And I think I am just about grasping what she was trying to say. Well, that’s it for now, as it seems my plane is ready for take-off after all.

1 thought on ““Mill Grove Saved my Family””

  1. Thank you Keith. I will be sharing this with many others. A lot to think about. Today I was talking to a group about friendship and someone said the talk had caused her to think what sort of a friend she was. This essay has reminded me to wonder how much I send off small rockets!


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