An enterprising scheme to help mothers in one of the most deprived areas of the country is being staffed by members of their own communities. Barbara Millar reports

The odds stack up against Glasgow babies. The city is home to some of the most deprived communities with the poorest health in Scotland. This is where the Starting Well project, launched this month, aims to make a difference - by offering support to about 1,800 young families over the next three years.

For Dionne Eaglesham, a mother of two living in the Gorbals, one of four areas covered by the scheme, the benefits lie in the staff it employs - lay health workers, members of the local community with child care experience.

'People will talk to their own folk - people from their own community - far more easily than to outsiders. They experience the same pressures and have a lot of the same problems. They know what you are talking about, ' she says.

Ms Eaglesham believes such people will be more willing to listen than many health professionals 'who just tell us what we need'.

The project, run under the auspices of the Glasgow Healthy City Partnership, is a three-year£3m Scottish Executive initiative which will pilot new ways of helping parents and their children, aged up to three years, in four of Glasgow's most deprived areas - Easterhouse (the East area) and the Gorbals, Govanhill and North Toryglen (the South area).

Twenty health visitors and 24 family support staff are being recruited to work with around 1,800 families in the deprived communities. Those covered by the scheme will get their own 'family health plans', geared to meet their personal needs.

Alice Mitchell, the health visitor co-ordinator for the South area, says: 'The main components of Starting Well are intensive support for families with a new baby and the provision of a strengthened network of community-based support services for children and their parents.

'The family support workers, for example, will be able to offer practical help, such as escorting an older child to school while mum looks after the new baby or doing some household chores while mum gets on with breastfeeding. They will also be backing up health visitor advice and helping parents put it into practice, such as, for example, making sure parents are brushing their children's teeth.

'None of us can tell others how to live their lives, but we can work with families and communities and help them develop better health. Recruiting family support workers who actually live in these communities is an innovative and important step towards doing that.'

Project manager Michael Killoran Ross, a former consultant clinical psychologist, says that local implementation groups will be set up in the two areas to provide strategic direction to the project. They will be given resources 'to use as they see fit'. There will also be money available to enhance local services, where necessary, he adds.

All families with a new baby will be offered the intervention. The project has estimated around 600 births per year across the four areas, for the next three years, giving a total of 1,800 families over the period. Dr Killoran Ross reckons each health visitor, supported by two family workers, will have a caseload of around 90 families, significantly smaller than current health visitor caseloads in the city. Although the level of support provided will be adapted, over time, to suit each family's needs, each family has been estimated to receive around 65 contacts over the three years. 'But this is a ballpark figure, ' he stresses.

'In some cases contact might be on a daily basis.'

William Timoney, chair of Glasgow city council's health forum, says that lessons learned from Starting Well in Glasgow will be able to be applied across the whole of Scotland.

'We often tell the Scottish Executive that if Scotland's health issues are to be tackled, the city of Glasgow is the frontline of the national struggle. This is our chance to prove it.'

The project is one of four national health demonstration sites across the country, outlined in the public health white paper Towards a Healthier Scotland in 1999. At the launch of the project, Scottish health minister Susan Deacon said the schemes were a core aim of the Executive's social justice agenda.

'Protecting and promoting children's health is one way in which we can help them to make the most of their lives and the opportunities available to them. This is social justice in action.'