By Sally Donovan
‘Cinderella service’ is a term regularly used to describe the support on offer to care leavers, and it’s appropriate. Many care leavers feel forgotten and isolated, but there isn’t a fairy godmother waiting in the wings to wave her wand and spread her magic.
Support services, particularly emotional and mental health support, are notoriously difficult to access even if they are available, or indeed suited, to the needs of care leavers. The problems have been known for a long time. The state just isn’t often nimble or creative enough to find the right solutions.
In times of economic strife and bureaucratic burden, it takes a fresh approach to lead the way. This is a perfect time to introduce the new stars of the show, who have way more get-up-and-go and creativity than poor old Cinders: The Topé Project.
It has a simple and clear aim: to combat isolation among care leavers and that’s no different at Christmas. As a group of young care leavers themselves, they know what they are talking about and have no delusions about fairy godmothers.
Their project was named in memory of their friend Topé, a 23-year-old care leaver who committed suicide several years ago. He worked hard to mentor other young people in care.
“Some of us don’t even have friends to socialise with on Christmas Day.”
Last year, the project set itself an achievable objective: to organise a meal in London on Christmas Day for 70 young care leavers. This year they will do the same for 80, with another 40 attending a Christmas dinner at an event in Manchester organised by the writer and artist (and care leaver) Lemn Sissay. Next year there will be more dinners in more venues. The year after that? Who knows.
Daniella Brown, a 22-year-old council worker who attended the dinner last year, sums up the value of the event for her and others: “I enjoyed it, it’s a different atmosphere. I was like, ‘wow’ when I saw the presents! I didn’t know what to pick.
“I also remembered why we were here as well, obviously it is not a good thing, but it is another step forward for other children and young people to come and be together and meet other people.
More than a meal
“If there wasn’t this, people would be at home, sad. Some of us don’t even have friends to socialise with on Christmas Day.”
It’s clear from this and other accounts that the Christmas event is much more than a meal. The project’s coordinators, who include youth worker Shalyce Lawrence, 24, and social entrepreneur and mentor Jerome Harvey-Agyei, 22, have a clear view of the wider benefits an event like this can offer.
“I love helping young people and I like seeing them being happy – I love the fact we are doing this,” says Shalyce. “I know this Christmas is going to be fun! For everyone to be able to meet new people, be in a safe environment and in a place where everyone can relate to you and everyone is friendly – it feels like home when you really need it.
“The vibe was just amazing last year.”
“The vibe was just amazing last year. The people involved have an amazing spirit about them and it just gets passed onto everyone and it is just beautiful.”
As care leavers themselves, the organisers know how important it is to create a safe environment, of providing transport to and from the venue, of giving presents like kitchen utensils and warm clothing and of providing a wide variety of high-quality food. The project is well thought through.
Volunteers include Natasha, a newly-qualified social worker who works in a local authority children in care team. I asked her what she got from helping out at the event.
“The whole day reinforced for me how the real needs of our care leavers, particularly their emotional needs, can get forgotten,” she says. “It is easy for young people to be forgotten because we assume they will get into contact if they need support, but in reality a lot don’t because they can feel ashamed or embarrassed.
“I was also reminded of how important events like these are. Although many of the guests arrived not knowing anyone else, everyone had a great time.”
Last year, celebrity chef and care leaver Lorraine Pascale visited the dinner with a donation of gifts and food. She talked to guests about her journey through care and beyond.
I spoke to another of the project co-ordinators, journalist Ruth Stivey, who said young people living in isolation might not get the chance to meet anyone well-known, let alone someone who has, like them, experienced the care system.
‘It’s important that young care leavers see positive role models around them who they can aspire to,” she says. “Some of our guests are very isolated and find it hard to see a way out.”
Want to organise your own Christmas lunch for care leavers?
She told me how important it is that these voices are heard: “When young care leavers can see a positive future they can show remarkable tenacity as a result of already having survived so much. They are not going to hear the word ‘no’.”
At the heart of the project is this tenacity, coupled with a warm generosity of spirit. Following their successful Christmas dinner last year, they have produced a step-by-step guide to replicating the event elsewhere. It covers everything from fundraising to health and safety considerations and is available to anyone who wants to take on the challenge in 2014.
Lean and fit initiatives like The Topé Project, shaped with compassion by those who know best, have great potential to inform wider services for care leavers. Not only is it smartly organised and considered, it also delivers two things which other services often don’t: fun and good memories. And everyone deserves those.