Author: Mari Eggins, Chief Executive of Carefree Cornwall
I work for Carefree, a Cornish charity that would not exist if, as founding CEO, I hadn’t listened to what young people told me.
How Carefree began
Carefree began in the early 2000’s, employing me as its first worker from January 2005. As a foster carer who was also a qualified youth worker, I was listening to what young people were telling me about their experiences of being in the care of the Local Authority. My two foster daughters and four other young people who became Carefree’s Founder group were telling me that they felt ‘different’ because they were in care, they sometimes found it hard to make friends and they often found it hard to have their rights as young people met because of the complexities of being in care. For example, I met one of our founder members, who has worked with Carefree over the last 15 years, because she was finding it difficult to open a bank account because the person signing as her ‘parent’ was not from her birth family.
Convening young people
The founding group’s solution to this sense of needing a place to belong was to set up bespoke youth work activity for young people in care. We agreed that whatever we did had to be fun, got young people in care together to meet one another, and treated young people as equal partners in developing the activities. Together we developed a summer holiday programme that offered outdoor activities, art, overnight camping and independent living challenges. This included shopping, cooking, and navigating around Cornwall using public transport.
How our peer-mentoring approach grew from listening
Early on, I asked the group if they thought that other young people would want to attend, and it was difficult to listen to the answer, which was ‘probably not’. The group explained that they hadn’t been able to turn up to things where they didn’t know anybody, and so they didn’t see why anybody else would. That vital listening conversation led to our developing Carefree’s vital ‘peer mentoring’ approach. A peer mentor is really a peer befriender – an engagement strategy, where young people encourage others to join in relational activity.
Navigating payment and employment of people with lived experience
In our second year, 2006, our existing peer mentors helped to train the next cohort: young people who had shown an aptitude for supporting others in the first year. A member of our Board suggested that we paid these ‘senior’ peer mentors for this work; however, after some thought, the young people themselves turned that idea down. They said that they wanted to come to Carefree for support themselves, for fun and for friendship – and they wanted to see themselves as volunteers and participants, not employees.
We began to employ other staff in 2007. However, it felt as though we were missing something: none of us had been in care. At the end of the summer, we trialled an apprenticeship for one of our founder members as our first care experienced employee. This began a learning curve that is still going – our organisation prides itself on enabling the voices of young people with lived experience, but there are many pitfalls along the way.
Our first care experienced employee
Our first care experienced employee (who has helped me edit this blog, 16 years later) was on a 30 hour a week contract whilst I was still part time, and everyone else was sessional. Our office was tiny and could be claustrophobic. We were trying to do the right thing, but we didn’t have the right infrastructure to support a young worker on an apprenticeship and it was in danger of becoming a tokenistic gesture, where we were employing someone with lived experience without the right work opportunities and learning frameworks.
We continued to believe that employing people with lived experience of care could and should be possible. Our second apprenticeship was better structured, part of a county-wide recruitment of youth work professionals and when we were big enough to manage the worker well – we had a bigger office too!
Over the last 16 years, we have employed more than 20 people who have care experience: Roles have included a trainee youth worker, careers advisor, social worker and social work manager.
Listening to the needs of staff with lived experience
The most important thing we have learnt is how important listening is when we are employing people with lived experience. Employees who understand the issues of the client group an organisation works with ‘from the inside’ help to shape work, helping workers without lived experience to understand what the work really needs to be. However, a deeper kind of listening also needs to happen – listening to the needs of a worker with lived experience, rather than just gathering up their advice and input into the project.
Using Mehrabian’s model, we understand that a huge part of communication is not in words but in actions, body language and other forms of communication (From Mehrabian, Silent Messages). For examples, it is vital to understand that a member of staff being off sick, or not coming in to work, may be a message that working closely to support others with similar lived experiences may be re-traumatising. A worker with lived experience should be able to ask for and receive, additional support for this. Carefree provides all workers with monthly supervision, as well as external support, like paying for therapy sessions.
Suggesting that employing people with lived experience should be avoided because it’s too difficult is missing the point. It implies that there are two classes of people – ‘professionals’ and ‘clients’. This is a dangerous and oppressive binary. All of us have experienced adversity and trauma; not everyone who has had a difficult childhood becomes a care leaver. However, there needs to be careful planning and scaffolding of support in order to make it work, for the clients, for the organisation and for the worker. Listening is key.