My earliest memories were pretty traumatic. There were a lot of drugs and alcohol in my area, and my house was bare. We didn’t have carpets and the rooms were very empty. We went into care after my mum had been attacked. She’d been raped in an alley and stabbed in the eyebrow. At nursery we were told that our Mum was ill and we wouldn’t see her again. I already knew that was a lie because I saw what had happened to her, but I obviously couldn’t verbalise it as a 4-year-old.
We went into a foster home where it was a completely different culture – the smells were different, the tastes were different, the environment was completely different, and the family were a different colour to us. We didn’t understand what was happening because nobody really explained what was going on so we stayed quiet. When we became a bit more like our normal selves we used to jump up at the door to open it and go out onto the streets. We were used to that freedom, but the family kept bringing us back and locking the doors. Because we weren’t listening they ended up beating us and locking us in the cellar. We weren’t allowed to sit on the sofa, we had to sit on the floor. We wouldn’t eat at the same time as the family, we’d eat afterwards and be given bowls of what looked like dog food. It wasn’t nice, and it was the emotional abuse rather than the beatings that left the scars.
I began to remove the layers and started to understand that by going through all this trauma I wasn’t weak but incredibly strong. It was a completely new concept to me. That’s when the Topé Project began. In school I recognised people talking about family, but I didn’t really understand what a family was. I used to do the Tracey Beaker thing, making up ideas of where I thought my family was and incorporating it into conversations. I used to tell people that my Mum was flying around the world. Lots of different people would pick me up and my friends would ask me who my Mum was. One year we were in the local newspaper – my brother, sister and I had an article written about us to see if anybody wanted to adopt us – and then it was out in the open and everyone knew we were in care.
We got moved into another home with a lady from Trinidad. She was very loud and this was where my life changed for the positive. We had somebody who genuinely cared for us, showed us love, and didn’t beat us. It was very strange at first and we used to run away. We’d break glass, break all the toys, and she recognised that something wasn’t right. Once she dug a bit deeper she realised that we’d been abused in our previous home. With the other family we were the Mum and Dad’s job, but in this new home the whole family accepted us and we were part of it. It was really nice and natural, and a beautiful way to feel like you were loved and respected.
She took us on holiday to Trinidad and Tobago, which was amazing. It was the first time I’d ever seen clear blue water. Trinidad was lovely but Tobago was beautiful on another level – the tranquillity and calm was just so healing. I’ve never forgotten what it looks like; the sun coming down, being on the shore for hours just chilling and eating good food. It was magical and it made me understand that the world is bigger than where we lived. There was so much beauty, but there was also a level of poverty. The people didn’t have much in terms of physical stuff, but they had a lot of spirit and they were happy. This is where I began my journey of discovery, learning about myself and about the world around me.
At the age of 13 I started to work with Barnardo’s around children’s rights. We campaigned for sleepovers – if you wanted to stay over at your friend’s house they would have to do a police check on the family which could take up to 6 months. This means your friends know you’re in care, and their life is being intruded in by police which can be really uncomfortable. We campaigned to get that changed and we did. Foster carers can now make the decision like parents would do, making a judgement call if they feel it’s safe.
We were there for quite a while, but then the house got shot at. There was a lot of violence in the area and our house got mistaken for somebody else’s. The shooting happened on the Friday and they moved us on Monday after school, saying it wasn’t safe. This hurt a bit. It gave me a message that our lives are cared about 9-5 Monday through to Friday. These people claim they care about you and want to keep you safe, just not on the weekend. It was also done with no consideration about how I felt about my carer and the bonds we’d formed.
I went through a depressive state, going through a few months of not wanting to be here. I was 15 at the time and they moved me into another foster home but I didn’t stay long. The carer didn’t want me there. She was new to the job and she’d taken on me and my sister, and I heard her telling the social workers that she didn’t have space for me, even though we all had our own rooms. I didn’t want to be somewhere I wasn’t wanted and I moved into a hostel, which was crazy. On the first day they had to stop one guy stabbing his friend. My clothes got stolen from the washing machine and it was the worst part of care because it was so unsafe. There was a lot of violence, theft, isolation, not feeling safe which was really tough. At the same time I was doing my GCSEs, and finding it difficult to manage my emotions.
After a couple of months I went to another carer. She was okay, but it wasn’t home. There were funny rules that I didn’t understand. They had a fridge filled with lots of lovely food and I had my own which was empty. I was expected to fend for myself to help prepare me for moving into my own place at 18. Actually we need to be less independent because we need to deal with our trauma first. When you have so much change, you can start to get self-sabotaging thoughts and start thinking that everything that goes wrong in your life is your fault – or you might blame the world for your problems. When you flow in victimhood you stay a victim
One of my friends was killed and I felt I needed answers. I needed to speak to my Mum to find meaning and understand ‘why’. My carer advised me to talk to her, but not to judge her. I went to her house and she explained that without support she was alone with her trauma. I found out that she wrote poems about us – about how she cared for us and how the system had caused her so much pain – and they’re beautiful.
Later that week she jumped off a roof. I was at work – I’d just started as a Participation Officer at the Children’s Rights Service – and I got a call from my friend to say the road had been blocked off and I knew something had happened. I jumped on my bike and got to the scene where paramedics were pressing her chest. Time slowed down. I ran through the tape, the police tried to stop me and I asked whether I could see her out. The paramedics let me hold her head and I told her I loved her. The doctors massaged her heart and it started beating again. She was drunk, which was the one good thing about the situation because it meant her body was relaxed when she jumped so the impact didn’t go straight to her brain.
A year later I got stabbed. I share this because it’s part of my journey through care and wanting to be around people to feel part of a family. I was smart and I never liked causing trouble, but I used to hang around people who did and I’d try and stop them. This meant that I got associated with certain areas and certain people, and the same people who killed my friend tried to kill me. This gave me a wake up call. My goals were trapped in my head but I never acted on them because I didn’t have the confidence or the motivation. I didn’t understand the blocks I’d got in place and the emotional trauma that I’d never spoken about.
Aturning point was when my friend Topé committed suicide. He was an amazing man, but he couldn’t look in the mirror and tell himself he was amazing. It was harder than having friends killed; with that you have closure because you know it was because of somebody else’s hatred towards them. With suicide there’s no real closure because there’s always something that could have been done. I helped another friend who was suicidal and took her to an Empowerment Seminar, but it ended up helping me. I realised there was so much stuff I hadn’t dealt with and this was where my journey of selfdiscovery started. I began to remove the layers and started to understand that by going through all this trauma I wasn’t weak but incredibly strong. It was a completely new concept to me. That’s when the Topé Project began.
We are a volunteer run, youth led project who help combat loneliness for care experienced young people. Each year we come together for a Christmas celebration, which can be an isolating time when you’re living in independent accommodation. We ran our first Christmas day in 2012 and this was the first time I’d ever cried with love. It was so beautiful. We can’t bring our friend back, but we can save many others.
We decided to create a ‘how to’ guide. We couldn’t do this alone and we didn’t want to make the event too big because with children in care there’s bound to be something that happens. We gave the idea to Lemn Sissay and he’s taken it far and wide. He’s been doing Christmas dinners all over and it’s been nice to see how it’s grown nationally.
My campaigning used to be about fighting for rights and now it’s about flowing in love. I realised that you don’t need to fight to get people to listen; actually they don’t often listen when you’re trying to fight for something. You can get noticed, but whether they hear you is another matter. I now create experiences, so instead of telling people how we feel we put them through a process so they live it. We do an exercise called Three Hearts, getting people to name a person, a place and a thing close to their heart and talk about why it’s important to them. I share my three hearts and then I rip them up. I say that’s what happens when you go into care. You lose all the things that are important to you. How would it feel if you lost one of those hearts? Children in care lose these consistently, and they can lose them multiple times.
Through my Participation and Advocacy work I learned how to create a space for people to grow. We delivered a service but young people owned it; they would come up with an idea and we would work with them to make it happen, applying for funding together, doing the interviews together, and delivering the work together. That’s how participation should be. I then moved to work for the Mayor of London. I started in the Educational Youth Team which looks at how we can incorporate young people’s voices in decisions that affect London. The Violence Reduction team spotted me bringing a group of young lads in who they call ‘hard to reach’. They’re not hard to reach, you just have to go out and speak to them. I got an offer from them to help with their youth action group and I’ve been there ever since.
Outside of this I’ve been involved in knife crime campaigns. I ran for local councillor in 2015 and came third. I started to deliver training sessions, although I consider myself a growth facilitator not a teacher. I plant seeds and people get to choose whether they want to grow them. Last year we went to Moldova and helped them set up their first care leaver service in the country. We went to the Czech Republic with JK Rowling’s charity Lumos – they’re all about ending child exploitation and we were doing work in orphanages which are poorly regulated in some countries. It was really interesting to get a global perspective – in the UK children go into care because of trauma and abuse. Outside of the UK many children go into care because of poverty and get abused in the system. Some orphanages have over 300 children and volunteers come and go every six months which causes disruption emotionally and it means they struggle to develop meaningful connections.
Through the Topé project we’ve branched out and founded the Happy Heart Company. You use senses to interrupt trauma and connect with the present, so we sell candles and other products that help people heal. A lot of my healing required different senses – smells, sounds, light, fire, earthy elements – and we’re using this to help others.
Through all of this it’s about learning about me too, unravelling the layers and understanding who I am. Everything I do internally starts to reflect externally. Opportunities come my way because I am opening myself up to them, rather than closing myself to them and the people around me.