I used to be scared of owning my identity as a care leaver. I didn’t want to say it out loud. “I grew up in care.”
I had been told for years, personally and professionally, that the fact I have been in care is something that I should hide.
In 2013, I became a Mum and started to think about what I wanted to teach my daughter. I started to think about my values, where I came from and what I believed in. I felt really strongly about children’s rights, empowering young people and stood against any form of discrimination and stigma. That’s because at 15 years old, I was told I was on the road to jail. I had felt like my life, the contribution I would make to the world, had already been written off. I know what it feels to be judged for something you aren’t in control of.
As a Senior Residential Care Worker. I saw young people battle with the exact same stigma I experienced. “Remember that you don’t need to tell anyone this is where you live.”, they were told, as if it was that easy to just ignore part of your life.
It is my belief that young people can own their identity as someone with care experience in a positive way. That it can become part of their strength base, not something they should be ashamed of. We just have to show them that it’s okay.
Being clear about who you are, and being shown that you shouldn’t be ashamed, is a big part of how people deal with discrimination.
2015 was the turning point for me because I joined the Who Cares? Scotland Family. That meant I was an official member of the Alumni of Care Leavers and I went along to my first meeting.
I felt so welcome. Everyone there talked freely about their experience and I felt a real sense of belonging. I didn’t need to make up a cover story of my childhood. I didn’t have to worry about people feeling sorry for me as I talked about life in a children’s home and with different foster families. They just got it. That helped me realise that growing up in care is just part of my story, it isn’t the whole thing. When you keep something hidden though, you don’t get the chance to understand that. Silence can make things bigger than they really are.
I didn’t often get to be in a space where there are no barriers, no judgement and bags of motivation. It felt like meeting long lost family. The connection that I feel every time I meet someone with care experience is wonderful and it’s a joy to get to be part of other people feeling that way too.
I am finally free to be myself and know that I am part of an amazing network of people that want to change care for the better.
The last year has been a personal journey for me. I’m going to be spending my time with Who Cares? Scotland growing the alumni of care leavers.
There’s thousands of us out there and I’m determined that anyone who wants to will get to be part of this family. The Alumni will be made up of people from many different walks of life with different experiences of care. It is the determination to give something back, to use our experiences in a positive way, that will unite us.
As a young person I met two care workers that had care experience. They shared little snippets of their time in care and their words of support and guidance meant the world to me. I knew it was honest and came from the heart. Meeting adults with care experience gave me hope that life might just be okay. These are the people I remembered when I hit rock bottom. It was these stories that told me that no matter how hard things get, I wasn’t alone in my struggle. Others had been there and not just “lived to tell the tale”. They were thriving, successful, unapologetic.
Having a community of people that can own their identity positively will have a massive impact on how a young person can feel about their story, being in care and their future. I’m so excited to see what the Alumni will mean for young people in care right now. I want it to be a beacon of hope and of belonging.
I have shared my experience in many different ways in the last year. I’ve spoken at conferences. I’ve been featured in newspaper articles. I’ve spoken on radio. Most recently, I delivered a Ted Talk; Kids in Care: Let’s Start A Revolution.
I did it because every time I spoke, another care experienced person reached out to me and said a version of “I don’t talk about the fact I’ve been in care. I want to but I don’t think people will understand.”
I now want to take other people with care experience on this journey. The only qualifier to becoming a member of the Alumni is that you have experienced care.