Changemakers: The cancer survivor helping unwell young people keep learning

Joshua Pelled knew childhood illness shouldn't be a learning barrier, so set up a charity supporting young people with medical issues

When he was five, Joshua Pelled was diagnosed with kidney cancer and forced to take a year out of school. Less than 20 years later, he set out to make sure no child would feel the same isolation and disadvantage he did – by setting up Bright Futures UK.

The charity provides tailored educational and personal support for people aged five to 24 who have to take time out of school for medical reasons. It’s the only organisation of its kind in the country.

During his first stint in treatment, London-based Pelled underwent intensive chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgeries. They were successful. But at 16, his cancer returned and he had to take another year out of school just as he was due to sit GCSEs and A-Levels. 

“Kids are put in such difficult situations because there are no provisions,” the 24-year-old says. “They finish treatment, they go back to school, they have to rebuild a huge part of their life themselves. It causes a lot of anxiety which can lead to mental health complications and relapses.”

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

While studying business economics at Nottingham Trent University, Pelled befriended fellow student Nathalie Holt. She was forced to drop out of studies after being diagnosed with cancer herself. 

“From age five all the way up until 22, not once did I see provisions to support young people whose whole lives are turned upside down,” Pelled says. “I wondered what could be done. And once the idea was in my head, I had to go for it.” 

He set up Bright Futures with Holt as his business partner. It took around six months for them to get the charity off the ground; that meant adhering to safeguarding policies, getting in line with regulations and navigating just-arrived GDPR. Pelled was finishing his degree at the same time.

Bright Futures offers three programmes which “revolve and evolve” around mentoring, tutoring and workshops for people aged five to 24. The mentorship on offer ranges from one-to-one sessions, buddy programmes and professional mentoring to help someone keep working towards their goals despite medical issues.

With the right support and a bit of nurturing, she’s transformed

“Getting a tutor is expensive,” Pelled says, explaining the Bright Futures tutoring programme. “If you’ve got a kid who’s out of education full time, a tutor to compensate for all that is unaffordable for everyone except the wealthy, meaning medical issues hit already disadvantaged families harder.”

The charity’s flagship programme is its workshops. The Bright Futures volunteers run sessions out of play areas and ward common rooms.

“It’s everything from CV writing to knitting to slime-making to careers advice,” Pelled says. Anything that teaches a young person a skill, or even just lets them have a bit of fun, while providing them with social skills and a comfortable space away from the discomfort of their treatment.”

Pelled first approached the University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation, which had been responsible for his own treatment as a child. They agreed to trial his programmes; within weeks they asked to set up a partnership agreement and make Bright Futures a full-time fixture. 

Since then the charity, with a team of just five and dozens of volunteers, has been approached by every hospital in London and supported more than 800 young people.

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

Pelled remembers a young girl, now 16, that his charity started working with about a year ago. Doctors found a tumour behind her eye; she couldn’t see properly and suffered terrible headaches. Plummeting school attendance meant she was threatened with expulsion despite having medical documents. Eventually she had surgery, but this meant months out of classes.

“We started providing an English tutor for her while she recovered and made sure all the materials were in big print so she could read it,” Pelled says. “Her grades started to go up and we could see real progress. She was developing confidence, she was seeing friends more. 

“We decided to try her out with similar support in science subjects and she excelled just as much. Recently she had her exams and she was getting the highest grades possible.

“She had that in her all along, but her circumstances made it difficult. With the right support and a bit of nurturing, she’s transformed.”

Fundraising remains the charity’s biggest challenge, says the founder, and Bright Futures’ in particular must strike a fine balance – it is the only charity providing such a service, but standing out from the crowd of thousands of UK organisations is tricky.

Pelled has plans to expand beyond London and become the national charity for the issue. Young people with health problems have a range of needs beyond treatment, Pelled says, and Bright Futures “will keep hammering that home for as long as they have to”.