How it all began

Zippy’s Friends is now one of the world’s most successful mental health promotion programmes for young children, running in primary schools and kindergartens in 30 countries.  It has come a long way since a meeting in London back in 1996.

Lithuanian ClassBefrienders International (now Befrienders Worldwide) was the umbrella organisation for Samaritan or befriending centres in 41 countries.  In each of these centres, volunteers provided a non-judgmental listening service for people who were lonely, despairing and possibly suicidal.  A common complaint from callers was ‘I don’t know what to do.’  Life had dealt them a blow and they felt unable to cope.

The pharmaceutical company SmithKline Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline or GSK) had been reviewing its corporate donations and decided that it wanted to focus its giving on three programmes which could have a major impact on children’s health.  One of the three programmes was to promote mental health, and the company asked Befrienders International for suggestions.

The charity saw a need and the company saw an opportunity – to create a programme which could help young children to develop coping skills, so that they would be better able to deal with crises in childhood, adolescence and adult life.  Sponsorship was agreed and work began.

The initial programme was intended for schools in Europe and was known as Reaching Young Europe.  It was developed jointly by Befrienders International, a panel of eminent academics and a company which specialised in producing educational resources.  Liz Swinden wrote the stories and an illustrator called Mig provided colourful pictures.
When the programme was trialled in Denmark in 1998-99, the results were promising but not good enough.  So the University of Quebec at Montreal, under the guidance of Prof Brian Mishara, was engaged to comprehensively revise and expand the programme, improving some of the old content and developing lots of new activities, all of which were carefully tested.  In 2001 the new programme was piloted in Denmark and Lithuania, and this time the results were excellent. 
Teacher training in IndiaChildren taking part in it showed clear improvements in their coping and social skills, and the benefits applied equally to boys and girls.
The only problem then was that the involvement of Befrienders International in a programme for young children confused people and led to some ill-informed press coverage.  Why was a suicide prevention agency talking to five and six-year-olds?  In fact, of course, the programme made no mention of suicide, but the perception was unhelpful and so it was decided to pass Reaching Young Europe on to another agency which could focus exclusively on helping children.

GSK funded the establishment of Partnership for Children, a completely independent new charity which set out to help as many children and train as many teachers as possible.  The European restriction was lifted and the programme’s name was changed to Zippy’s Friends.  Classes started in England and India, and the expansion has continued ever since.  GSK gradually withdrew its support and other sponsors and supporters came forward. 

To date, Zippy’s Friends has helped more than one million children in 30 countries – a remarkable tribute to the vision of those early pioneers who first conceived the programme almost 20 years ago.

Partnership for Children, 26-27 Market Place, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, KT1 1JH, England
Telephone : 00 44 (0) 20 8974 6004 - Registered Charity number: 1089810