“Remember when it was me who was that age and we used to do all the Team A arts and drama stuff? Great fun that was. I get it now, what you were doing with us. I know what they’re going through and even though I’m an adult now it still hurts sometimes. It’s great being a mentor but it’s hard to distance yourself from the kids and be a role model for them, because there have been times this weekend when I just wanted to sit down and cry. How can people hurt kids like we’ve been hurt? I haven’t told any of the little ones that I was brought up in care, but I thought it may help them if I did. Do you think I should? They could see then that you do grow up OK. Thank you for what you do. I mean that.”
Teenage Mentor on the LoL project
One of the Team’s greatest joys was working with the borough’s Looked After Children and Young People. On average, there were always around 450 youngsters in the care of the local authority and the Team developed a whole range of arts projects over the years to cater for all ages, from tots to teens.
Sometimes the children just wanted to have fun, forget that they were foster kids, and sing their heart out at the karaoke. Other times they wanted to use performing arts to tell people how they really felt, and what their sometimes-tragic journey had been. Their work exerted a power which was felt by all who watched.
In 2009 the Team responded to a Government call to engage more Looked After Children (LAC) in mainstream leisure and cultural activities. They won a funding bid to Walsall Communities for Health Steering Group (funded by the Department of Health National Communities for Health Programme) and the Lots of Leisure (LoL) programme began.
The fund supported local authorities, primary care trusts, community and voluntary organisations working together to facilitate real improvements to the health of some of the UK’s most deprived communities.
LoL engaged 100 seven to 12-year-olds, supported by a mentoring group of young people formerly in care.
Through past projects with children in the care of the local authority, arts development officers from the Creative Development Team had already identified the need for such a programme. Consultation showed clearly that many didn’t regularly maintain engagement in out-of-school activities. The reasons behind this were found to range from them simply not having access to information detailing the variety of activities available to them to more complex difficulties including transient lifestyles, lack of self-esteem
and an absence of carer support.
Over a series of residential weekends, the programme introduced them to new activities and a new LoL web site listing a broad scope of activities available, along with relevant information.
The project was designed to inspire both children and their carers that accessing more activities would improve not only physical, but also mental
health. The project also set out to educate leisure facility providers, with a series of workshops helping them understand how even their language (‘What time’s your Mom picking you up?’ being a typical example) could instantly alienate a foster child.
Alongside the steering group of professionals was a group of six LAC aged 12-16 (Team A) to ensure the programme continually represented
the voice of the child. Team A was developed by CDT and the Outreach Team (social workers) in 2004 to develop arts projects for themselves and other children. By the end of the LoL programme, more than half of the participants had gone on to engage with a mainstream leisure or cultural activity, from karate to dance lessons.
And Team A had taken it upon themselves to request a meeting with Walsall Council’s Chief Executive to discuss the blanket ban on Looked After Children having their picture taken – resulting in the blanket ban being lifted, and only imposed when the child was at risk if they were identified.
The children had spoken – they wanted to be both seen and heard…