“Because I grew up in neglectful circumstances, I hate the cold, so [this] is about me facing fears, and it’s pretty cold out there,” laughs Michelle McKay as she explains why she will trek to Everest Base Camp this winter.
McKay grew up on a child protection plan, travelling between home and different care arrangements.
Now an experienced social worker, McKay is travelling to the Himalayas in November to face her own fears but also hopes to teach children growing up in care about the importance of having goals, something she feels the care system currently lacks.
“They need to have more aspirations for these children and give them a sense of achievement,” McKay says, and she hopes to inspire that feeling with her trek.
Breaking through fears
“If I can break through my [fears] as an adult, I can help other young people do the same,” McKay says.
“[Care leavers] have hang ups you have to constantly push yourself [against]. If you can be the best you can be and not compete with others, that’s the ultimate really for young people.”
As well as disliking the cold because of her experience of neglect, McKay has a fear of flying due to the “lack of control” it gives you, and it reminds her of “being a child and moved about in the care system, having an anxious attachment”.
She will certainly feel that on the flight, which lands at Lukla airport, one of the most dangerous airports in the world, and a place only a handful of pilots are allowed to journey to because of the level of risk.
“You need to land quickly because at the end of the runway is a cliff,” McKay adds.
“So it is a big push on my part to do it, [but] if I can do these things, so can lots of young people in the care system,” McKay says.
She’s funding the trip herself – “I didn’t realise it would cost so much!” – and says tackling fears is about personal development after years of focusing on herself as a professional. She qualified in her 20s, and has since worked in child protection, looked-after children and now as a child protection conference chair.
McKay is also using the trip as an opportunity to raise money for a small church in Belfast, which works with widows but also has a sensory room for children and young people with autism.
“I’ve never worked in a disability team. I thought because I’d worked with looked-after children and in child protection it would be nice for me to give back to an area I’ve never given to.”
She was motivated to become a social worker because of a desire to give back to young people, and the system she went through.
“If you leave the army you’re always an army veteran – it’s the same with kids in care. Once you have been one you always are one, it never leaves you and you have that affinity with other people who are in or have left care,” McKay says.
While in care, McKay says she was supported by a “lovely” social worker who gave her “a bit of extra time”, which is her ultimate aim for children in care now.
“Ideally I would like to go trekking with young people from care, and take them to places like Kilimanjaro; ultimately I would love to do that.”
For now though, she is preparing herself for the trip, which she views as an opportunity to empower herself and children currently in the care system. “If I can do it, you really can.”
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