‘I felt valued and loved and wanted’: Care leavers at Christmas

Just like people who are homeless, care-leavers often find themselves left out in the cold over Christmas.

Even if they have a roof over their heads, youngsters coming out of the state’s care face the adult world years earlier than their peers, sometimes at the age of just 16. Without a family home to go back to for Christmas, this adult world can be a lonely place.

Happily, there is a network of events organised for care-leavers to celebrate at together, just as a family would. Sarah Wilkinson, of the social business Catch22’s National Leaving Care Benchmarking Forum, will be volunteering at an event in Hackney in London on Christmas Eve.

For young people whose families are absent, it can really exacerbate feelings of isolation.

“Christmas is traditionally a time when families get together, so for young people whose families are absent, it can really exacerbate feelings of isolation. For some it can also bring back memories of a difficult childhood,” she says.

“There are superb events being organised up and down the country, such as The Christmas Dinners, specifically for young care leavers aged 16 to 25. These events combat isolation and cultivate a sense of community and belonging between young people and the volunteers who run them – making it a day to remember for the right reasons.”

Ishbel Holmes is care-experienced. She found warmth and welcome at a Christmas dinner in Glasgow organised by charity Who Cares? Scotland. This is what it meant to her.

Christmas without family is really difficult to experience.

I used to have Christmas dinner with friends and their families, but I stopped that as I’d always end up in the bathroom, hiding the tears that were rolling down my face at witnessing what having a family is like at Christmas.  It was better for me to spend Christmas Day alone.  But this year was different as I would have my dog, Maria by my side.

Then I saw the Who Cares? Scotland Christmas Dinner advertised and my heart leapt at the prospect. I registered and my dog got an invite too!

It was magical. Volunteers had turned the venue, offered without charge from the brilliant people at Glasgow’s SWG3, into a winter wonderland.

It melted my heart that people gave up their time on Christmas Day to cook us dinner, serve it and make sure we had a great time. Volunteers drove those of us who had no transport. Local businesses donated gifts and we each received a sack full of presents. It really was amazing!  I felt so valued and loved and wanted, on what is the most difficult day of the year for so many care-experienced people.

Not having a home or love is normal for me.

When I left foster care, having just turned 17, I was still at school and studying for my exams. I had big plans and big dreams. I really wanted to go to university and my path there was clear.

That path disappeared in front of my eyes when the council, tasked with looking after me, made it clear that the only option open to me was a bed in a homeless hostel for 16 to 18-year-olds. Being a “care leaver” rather than a young person leaving my family home meant that there was no one who cared enough to fight my corner or even state the obvious – that a homeless hostel was no place for a 17-year-old in school.

I couldn’t continue school and I spent the next few years in homeless hostels, B&Bs, couch surfing and rough sleeping. I was handed a life of survival, not love and nurture and education, from those who were meant to care for me and I suffered the consequences alone.

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.

Children whose parents can’t look after them need love just as much as children whose parents can look after them. If I had people who loved me, it wouldn’t have just been accepted that I would be homeless while still at school. No one could do that to someone they love.

To all the foster carers, residential staff and corporate parents who choose to love care- experienced children despite the pressures of the system, I salute you. The children who got you are so lucky and may your influence spread throughout our society so that love is at the centre of the childhoods for all children and young people.

Events are organised across the country by Who Cares? Scotland and The Christmas Dinner.