I spent Xmas day yesterday volunteering with the Tope project.
The Tope project was set up by a group of volunteers because a young man, Tope, himself a care leaver, took his own life a few years ago around the Xmas period. Xmas time was identified as a particularly lonely and difficult time, and this group of people thought it would be great to set up a project for care experienced young people to come together and enjoy the day. This was their pilot project for 70 young people.
I had a really inspiring and memorable Xmas yesterday. Firstly, the day was superbly organised. Outside my social work MA and for the previous 10 years, I have been running my own charity, and so I know quite how difficult it is to run big events in spare time. But this event was incredible, and it seemed to really bring to light everything Xmas is all about. All the volunteers genuinely just cared and wanted to put on a fantastic day for the care leavers. There was a huge amount of food, fun and activities, from arts and crafts, to giant jenga, xmas films and incredible goodie bags for everyone with donations of gifts. Lorraine Pascale, herself a care leaver, showed up to give away signed books and talk about her own experiences, and an Arsenal rep, gave out gifts and the chance to tour the Emirates.
But what I really loved was chatting to so many young people and watching them chat to each other. I met young people who used to be homeless and recently have spent years in hostels, young people living with siblings in cheap hotels because there is no housing available, and young people still in care, who for whatever reason, decided they would prefer to spend Xmas with other care experienced young people than their foster family. Just before i left, two of the girls on my table started to bond, to chat over their experiences, over the careers they might want to do, or the song they might sing to the room - and it just felt pretty awesome. The whole experience felt inclusive. Some of the inspiring people who helped to lead it, from the Children's Rights Service just brought tonnes of energy, and had everyone laughing but also identifying with the experiences they talked of. It was grassroots, it was what the wonderful Cameron would call the Big Society, in between trying to make these people homeless by cutting their housing benefit. (sorry i digress!).
It chimed with me partly because I love working with young people, and got the same buzz from it that I did after mentoring during the summer, and from my current placement working with children in care, partly because it''s reinforcing the topic of my dissertation. I'm looking into the lack of emotional support care leavers get and how to help them in developing a support network, or understanding why they might not choose to engage with what social workers traditionally offer. I also saw how resilient these young people were, having gone through tough times, but still able to come together, many of whom turned up as teenagers at the event knowing no-one, and laugh and joke together, offering me advice as a trainee social worker (get to know the young person, keep in contact, remember to build a relationship, not just talk about issues, be supportive) and finally, because there is nothing better than being surrounded by volunteers like you, with the same passion, the same interests and with a desire to make a difference.
Thank you to the Tope project for giving me the opportunity to be part of such an inspiring and memorable event.
Every time i have an experience like this, it makes me question the direction I want my career to go -is it social work, is it youth work, is it some kind of charity youth engagement role, or entrepreneurial social enterprise role - but whatever it is, it has to be something that makes me feel the way I did yesterday.