A day in the life: Helen Waddington, Head of Casework at Perennial

helen waddington head of casework at perennialHelen Waddington is Head of Casework at Perennial, the UK’s only charity dedicated to helping all horticulturists in times of crisis. She has worked for Perennial for over 18 years, is based in North Yorkshire, and manages a team of 12 Caseworkers that provide direct help and advice to clients throughout the UK.

Helen was one of the first members of the client services team; before which, services were delivered by telephone or post, and were mainly giving grants and/or referring people on to a different agency. She helped develop the client-facing services that Perennial offers today, including the face-to-face home visits and ongoing contact with clients until they are back on their feet.


Here Helen talks about her work, common barriers to asking for help and how she’d like more people to spread the word about Perennial’s incredible range of services.

How did you hear about Perennial?

I was already working as an advice worker for City of York council helping people access their correct benefits. I knew of the charity and the work it did to support horticulturists as my father was a landscape gardener and my grandfather was an estate head gardener. I wanted a new challenge and when the role came up I knew I had to go for it.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Most of my work now is focused on managing the team of Caseworkers that deal directly with clients. I also do a lot of development work with referral agencies like The Trussell Trust to build relationships outside of horticulture and ensure that we are being used to refer suitable clients to. Direct contact from people who are seeking help is increasing but one of the main problems we face is the amount of time people wait before asking for help and there are still so many who don’t know we are here. We need more people to talk about getting help – breaking down the barriers and stigma surrounding asking for it. Many of the people we help are self-employed and it can be hard when you work for yourself to makes ends meet all year round. Horticulture is seasonal work and generally low paid. Illness or injury, resulting in time off work, can be devastating to a family’s income. The benefit service can be slow and people can wait up to 3 months with no income. Perennial helps with paperwork and tribunals and gives financial assistance until benefits come through.

And what about your team? What do the Caseworkers do in a typical week?

A Senior Caseworker is likely to see 4 – 5 clients each week. Most of those will be new clients. We aim to make contact with new clients within 3 days of their first contact with us and we aim to visit them at home within 10 working days. We usually go to see people before commencing to work on their case however, if there is a very urgent matter we can start immediately, before a visit. It’s really important for us to see people at home – it gives us lots of information about their situation (we have visited homes with no heating, no furniture, very little food etc), all the relevant paperwork we will need to see is there and importantly, we need to show people how much can we can usually do to help. Depending on how that first meeting goes we can sometimes start to work straight away. Many people think that because we are not a large charity we won’t be able to help but more often than not we can help in many more ways that our clients expect.

So what happens after that first phone call and meeting?

Once we have spoken to a client, and visited them at home, we start to tackle each part of their situation methodically. Problems are like icebergs – initially we only see the small part on the surface; benefits problems, not able to pay bills, washing machine out of order and can’t get another due to credit problems, ill health etc. But it is very rare to find only one thing – as we delve deeper we realise there is much more we need to deal with.

Who comes to Perennial for help?

Although some still think we are only there for retired gardeners, over 60% of our clients are below retirement age. We help a high number of families with children. And many of the people we see are single men – often very lonely, having lived with parents who have died. In addition, many people have learning difficulties, which makes it hard for them to access the right sort of help. Those who are self-employed often need help with tax returns or are not able to navigate the system, often leaving it too late to seek help.  In short, we can help anyone who works in or who has worked in horticulture. It is much better to get in contact as soon as you think you are struggling or are beginning to fall into debt you don’t think you can cope with. We can help with everything, from filling in government department forms to representing you in court. No problem is too big or too small.

How many times do you see clients?

The individual needs of each client are important to us. We may only need to see someone once but continue to work with them for many months. Others need to be seen in person every time – especially those people with learning difficulties or other disabilities. We tailor our support for each and every person we help.

How many miles does a Perennial Caseworker cover in an average week?

We see clients across the UK – distance is no barrier for our team of Caseworkers. In a typical week each Caseworker sees around 4 – 8 clients and it’s not unusual for them to drive 400 – 500 miles a week.

What do you think are the biggest barriers to people getting in touch with Perennial?

The obvious one is simply not knowing about Perennial and not fully understanding what we can do to help. A few people think they have to pay but all our advice and help is completely free and confidential. People worry about their employer finding out about details they need to share with us but everything we are told in our meetings with clients remains confidential. Many people are on zero hours contracts or haven’t had an incremental pay increase for 4 – 5 years. For those working for Councils this can be as much as 7 years. Working tax credits are being reduced with many people now not eligible. But poverty is subjective and it often depends where people live. In towns, although the cost of living may be higher, amenities are more accessible with good transport links and access to metered fuel. In more rural areas transport costs are a huge factor for many people and often there is no gas supply so fuel must be purchased up front and this cause particular problems in winter when fuel is necessary but the funds are not available. Perennial pays lots of grants over winter – we can pay for oil or hard fuel up front (most oil companies have a minimum delivery amount so people usually have to buy a full tank of oil, which can cost £1,000) and work with people to plan for their fuel costs in future years. We have installed wood burners in the past for those people with access to free wood supplies – this can make a huge difference to people’s lives.

Why is winter such a harsh time for horticulturists?

Horticulture, in general, is a career pursued in the warmer months of the year. Many gardens shut for the winter and staffing is reduced. Self-employed gardeners and nursery-owners have less work over the winter and for many it can be a make-or-break time of year. Christmas poses an extra pressure on resources and of course there are increased bills for heating. Many of the people we help fall into debt over winter, usually because they want to give their children a good Christmas. We receive many calls in November and December when people realise they are not going to be able to manage, January sees credit card bills arrive and in February people start to receive letters of demand. Calls increase well into the spring when quarterly bills start to land.

For those families with secondary school age children, the increased pressure to provide technology at home can also present financial difficulties.  Many families are not able to afford essential technology for homework but feel bound to provide for their children’s education. Again, Perennial can help.

Of course, debt is not always caused by poverty or financial mis-management. Many of our clients suffer injury at work and as a result lose their income for, sometimes, months on end. This can cause long-term problems and be the catalyst for a family’s financial situation spiraling out of control.

How do people contact you for help?

People can call our advice line on 0800 093 8543 or email services@perennial.org.uk. Family and friends or people experiencing difficulties can ring the advice line and we can explain how Perennial might be able to help. We will need personal confirmation from the person in need before we can visit them but we can take referrals from family and friends if they are with the person in question. Often this is the first step for many in seeking help.

What can horticulturists do to help spread the word about Perennial and its services?

People need to talk about it – tell people if you have received support from us and help us reduce the stigma around asking for help.  If you don’t feel you can talk about your situation straight away, call us and refer to a ‘friend’. We will be able to outline how we could help which could give you the confidence to tell us more. It is always worth a phone call, which is free and will be in complete confidence, or quick email to find out more.

What gives you the most satisfaction in your job?

Sorting out real problems – getting people moved, pulling people out of debt and poverty, seeing children happy again or helping people come off depression tablets. Many of our clients have health issues as the root of their problems but we have only once received a referral from a GP. We occasionally get referrals from social services but not from health care professionals.

If you could change one thing about your job what would it be?

I would have more hours in the day. It’s as simple as that. Sometimes all we need is time to be able to help people through their problems. I, and my team, strive to do the best job we can and get best result for people. The reward is often being able to say ‘goodbye’ – we only leave when we’re sure people are back on their feet.

If you, or someone you know, works in or is retired from horticulture and needs help, please contact Perennial today. Find out more about how Perennial can help here.