Belatedly celebrating International Women’s Day, and to explain the passion and drive behind the award-winning charity Family Gateway, we’ve got the story of our very own woman at the top – Strategic Director, Pauline Wonders!
Family Gateway operates a Barefoot Professional model of support which means that those who support families have first-hand experience of difficulty and poverty. Pauline is no exception, making her the perfect ambassador for the charity.
Pauline’s story starts with a childhood in which her family had very little money and some tough times, and shows how she has turned this experience into a commitment to supporting and empowering others.
Growing up in Bedlington in a family of seven, life started out cramped and hard for Pauline. Her brother died when Pauline was only 5 and that was difficult for the whole family, especially her mother who had to continue to nurture and look after the other children.
But Pauline’s mother had a strong work ethic and as soon as she could, she found work running a playgroup and then as a dinner lady to earn her own money and independence. Pauline’s dad was an incredibly hard worker, often working 3 jobs to support the family and also serving as a local councillor to support the community. Like most families at that time the family would grow their own vegetables and her mum had the knack of being able to make the meat from the Sunday lunch last 4 days. Even so, there were days when tomato ketchup sandwiches were the only option for tea.
At school, Pauline was the only child from her friendship group in the queue for free school meals.
“I felt embarrassed of course – while everyone else stood in one queue, I was in another by myself. It felt shameful that I was on free school meals when my friends weren’t. We couldn’t afford holidays like them either; I went to subsidised miners holiday camps. At the time I was resentful, now I realise that my parents did their best for us.”
As a younger child, Pauline realised that there wasn’t enough money to buy fashionable or new clothes and was used to being given third hand-me-down clothes from her sisters.
“I still have nightmares about the green tartan dress – I used to hide it so I didn’t have to wear it but mum always found it!”
Pauline’s older siblings set her the benchmark for hard work, and so she passed the 11+ test as she felt she owed it to her parents and to herself to improve her chances. She worked hard to better herself and get into grammar school, continuing to study hard as well as working part time to save for nice things. Thankfully, she had amazing friends and her family were close and happy.
“I’ve always been drawn to work more, to make more, to be more. I couldn’t go to University after my A-Levels because it would’ve financially broken my parents but not working was never an option. I found a job and studied part time for a professional qualification whilst earning.”
Pauline got job after job, constantly working and changing employer multiple times to better herself, passing her Chartered Management Accounting qualifications whilst pregnant with her second child. Eventually she became Deputy Director of Finance at Newcastle Hospitals Trust, going on to be Head of Corporate Learning at the University of Sunderland where she also studied a Master’s Degree in Executive Coaching. However, Pauline always had a distinct feeling of not being able to make enough of a difference to people.
She was asked to write a learning programme for Tyne Gateway at the point that the programme was developing as a Child Poverty Unit innovation pilot. She ended up creating and developing a bespoke Foundation Degree for a group of local people who were training as Community Entrepreneurs.
She was drawn to the work of the project and after becoming Chair of the charity when it was set up in 2011, she then stepped into the vacant role of Strategic Director when the original programme developer and lead left the role.
“It was only meant to be for a few weeks but I couldn’t tear myself away, there was still so much to do.”
With the name change in 2017 to Family Gateway, the acquisition of the old Community Centre in Howdon and also working from two satellite offices in Bedlington and Hebburn, Pauline now has 32 staff members and around 10 regular volunteers helping to sustain and grow this amazing local charity.
“Everyone in the organisation has a diverse range of experiences that drive us to innovate and explore new approaches and projects to engage those who are struggling. With this experience, we’re able to support people in making whole family changes that improve the life chances of their children.
I lie awake at night and wonder if I’ve done enough and how I can do more. But I know if I can make just one family more stable and able to manage, I may at least sleep a little…”