A 33-year-old Kingston woman has been crowned single mum of the year for her dedication to helping families in the same situation as her.
Karen Sutor runs Flying Solo – a group for single parents – at the children's centre in Surbiton. Since becoming a single mum after the birth of her son Shae three-and-a-half years ago, she has worked tirelessly to improve the quality of life for lone mums, dads and their children in the borough.
Her friend Vicky Ferrier, who she met through the group, was so in awe of her work that she nominated her for the award, run by This Life magazine.
“I was really shocked!” said Karen. “Vicky didn't tell me about it initially but they took so long to get back to her that eventually she told me that she'd nominated me and said she was really disappointed they hadn't responded. The next thing I knew about it was when they contacted me to say I'd won!”
Karen and Shae's dad split up soon after their son was born. A training consultant for the Flight Centre in New Malden, Karen was a professional who felt very much in control of her life but, with her family more than 200 miles away and with no friends with children, she suddenly found herself feeling very alone.
“I'm a confident person but caring for a baby is unlike anything else,” she said. “You're so tired, there's so much conflicting advice and it's months before you have the courage to trust your own instincts.”
While Shae slept, she began logging onto an internet forum for new mums, where she built up a network of friends. Then, last year, when Shae was two, Karen and some other local mums arranged to meet up. Eight of them go together in a coffee shop and discussed how empowering a local single parent's group would be.
That idea soon became a reality and, with Karen in the driving seat, they meet once a month at the Sure Start Centre, in Alpha Road, and on two day trips a month.
The meetings are more than just a chance for the children to enjoy playing – Karen helps them out with advice on everything from tax credits and employment help to tips on where to take their little ones. “Single parents are often treated differently,” said Karen.
“If I'm looking for a flat to rent, I'm asked how I'll afford it. I say work, but will also be receiving some housing benefit and generally they don't want to know. It's a financial minefield and knowing others in the same situation helps.”
As well as working, Karen is studying for a degree in childhood and youth studies, while Shae is at Maple Infants pre-school.
Vicky, 31, said she could not think of a more deserving winner. “She's just a lifeline to us all and she's a real inspiration,” she said. “Without her a lot of wouldn't have met and would feel a bit lost– she deserved this so much and it's lovely that other people agree!”
Karen said she was planning to take Shae and Vicky and her daughter Sophia on holiday to Disneyland Paris with her £3,000 prize.
For more information on Flying Solo contact Angela Hope at Sure Start Surbiton on 020 8547 6283.
Karen's story features in this week's This Life Magazine