Three significant events shaped Sharena’s life. The first was when her mum tragically died. The second was when Sharena was introduced to Paula, a Home-Start home visiting volunteer. The third was when she secured a place at Cambridge University. These three events are linked, as Sharena explains.

Sharena said: “Even though Mum died when I was four, I have many lovely memories of her. Sadly towards the end of her life, our days out and shopping trips were replaced with hospital appointments and in-patient visits. When Mum died everything changed. Dad went from being a business man to being at home all the time. Our usual home cooked meals were suddenly different and unfamiliar. He was the only dad amongst the many mums at the school gate.

Things changed for us again when Paula, our volunteer from Home-Start Exeter entered our lives

I remember first meeting Paula at a school sports day when I was in reception class. All of a sudden I saw an older, well dressed lady pushing my brother Raj in a pram and walking with Dad. In Indian culture we give everyone respectable nicknames, so Dad introduced her to me as Grandma Paula.

Grandma Paula gave me a warm smile. From that moment she became a huge part of my childhood, and was part of our lives until she died aged 91 in 2016. Grandma Paula gave us more time, attention and love than our own family.

Home-Start, and especially Grandma Paula, were the only people who came to our rescue after the devastation of losing Mum. Grandma Paula was instrumental in helping us to develop interests and hobbies.

Her gifts were always either books, puzzles or activities to promote learning. She was brilliant at identifying our natural abilities and strengths, and finding ways for us to develop them.

She noticed I was behind on my reading for my age. I was having additional support at school, but what really made all the difference was Grandma Paula. She’d buy me books on joined-up writing and would sit with me while I read to her. Grandma Paula was an English teacher, and soon we fell into a regular routine of our own little reading classes. She was the most fun person to learn with. It was completely different to school. She was so patient. I could make mistakes with her and over time my confidence grew. 

She made it such a joyful process and would provide little rewards along the way such as trips to the aquarium, zoo, the Donkey Sanctuary, or circus. Grandma Paula and Dad’s views on education were very closely aligned. Grandma Paula wanted us to do well at school and become whatever we desired. She didn’t want our early tragic experience to hold us back. She inspired me to stay focused and to remember that education is how you can advance yourself.

When I heard I’d been accepted into Cambridge University I deeply wished I could have called Grandma Paula to tell her. I can picture her saying “I always knew you had it in you”. Grandma Paula had absolute belief in us. She saw things that others didn’t.

Looking back now I can see that having someone who believes in you at a young age and someone to motivate and inspire you makes such a difference to your future self.

Years ago when I was doing my undergrad degree I’d never have considered applying to Cambridge University to do a Masters. It seemed too aspirational, too far fetched to even consider it a possibility. But as I researched courses, the Cambridge one just kept cropping up. In the end I thought why not? But all the way through the process I never truly believed it would happen.

After the joy and excitement of being offered a place, the hard work began. I’ve worked my way through my imposter syndrome, and I’m making the most of my time here.

My childhood has taught me so much and helped me to evolve into the person I am today. From Dad I’ve learned the importance of resilience and hard work. While from Grandma Paula I was surrounded by warmth, love and care, and learned to enjoy and embrace learning. I feel very privileged."

Read Sharena's brother Raj's account on how Paula inspired him to give back and become a Home-Start Trustee.

Read next - Spotlight on a Home-Start Trustee

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