Last year I was incredibly privileged to support an awesome group of young people to participate in this project. Today the work that they did in July, and the years of work by the national trust came together in a spectacular way.
When my boss heard about this project she phoned me, asking for my opinion as a care leaver as to whether taking part in a project like this could be upsetting for our young people. In the moment a lot of thoughts went through my little head. Firstly, the national trust? Clearly a bunch of posh knobs with no clue about our kids, using them as a way to get young people into the buildings. Also, what kind of moron asks a care kid about home? Obviously that’s going to be upsetting! However, just because our young people are in care, why does that mean they shouldn’t be involved? This could be the perfect opportunity for them to explore some of those memories and emotions in a safe and nurturing space. So…let’s do it!
So, along came the day of the first workshop, and I was apprehensive to say the least. Just the initial discussion with the group had me getting all emotional. This was just a couple of months after my Dad died so of course I was thinking about him. Someone suggested I could think about home from a different perspective but actually this whole process was really cathartic for me. The house where I grew up with my parents will probably always be home to me. It’s the last place I remember being truly comfortable and happy. It’s the last place I remember my mum and dad being truly happy.
This whole process ended up being more emotional for me than it was for any of the young people, but I definitely needed it. Seeing the young people sharing their memories and their objects which remind them of home so bravely and willingly made me so proud. They are beautiful and incredible and their stories are so powerful. Taking part in those two workshops was so lovely and it was amazing for all of us, staff included, to be able to share a little bit of ourselves in such a positive space. We all presented the items we’d brought with us, and seeing everyone’s faces light up as they recalled the memories that came with such ordinary everyday objects was just beautiful. Then came the time to part with our beloved belongings for the next 2 years, knowing that they would be looked after with the same care as an antique vase.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago and I get an email from the boss asking if I’d speak at the launch of the project. Generally, I quite enjoy public speaking (can we go back in time and tell 12 year old me that?) so I agreed and all I wanted to know is what I should talk about.
Yesterday Rachel (aka very awesome person from the national trust) phoned me and we talked about what she wanted me to say. In short, the brief was ‘you’ve got 2 minutes to make them cry’. Easy.
So, last night I sat down with some gin and I rambled a bit, edited a bit, then rambled some more…
Fast forward again to today and I arrived at Croome for 12, bracing myself against the gale force winds on the walk down to the house where I met up with Rachel. She introduced me to one of the boys from the school who I believe referred to me as ‘modern looking’ which amused me greatly. Then, I got the privilege of seeing the exhibit before it was open to the public. I’d already been told that one of my items, a photo of my mum and dad on their wedding day, was at the centre of the piece. I thought I’d prepared myself for the crying… I had not. Seeing them there for everyone to see, at a time when they were so incredibly happy, was so powerful. I suddenly felt really at peace, knowing that those two amazing people who I love so much and who had been ignored their entire lives, were now going to be seen by thousands and thousands of people. Their story was going to be told and they were going to be seen. I’m told all the time that they would be proud of me but today was the first time I actually started to believe it.
Whilst I was walking around the house I met so so many people, one of whom was a gentleman who attended Croome when it was a boy’s school. Initially I thought he was angry that other people were involved in the exhibit when it was supposed to be telling their story. What I soon realised though was that he is in the exact same position as me, my parents, and all of the young people I work with. He had a story, and it was painful and traumatising, and all he wanted was for someone to listen. I really hope that this project made him feel that he’s being heard.
When it came time for the actual launch of the exhibit, everyone filtered in to a big long hall where they could hear the European Youth Music Refugee Choir. This was a group of young people from lots of different countries and background, singing to us in multiple different languages, all brought together by music. In the middle of their set one of the young men stepped out of the group and read a poem to us about where he had come from and the things he had seen. His English was broken and he struggled with some of the words but that made it all the more powerful. He was another person who had a story to tell and just needed someone to hear it.
After they finished singing, the 5 of us lined up at the front of the room, all of us ready to share our passion for this project. Hearing everyone talking about the work that has gone in to giving all of us this chance to have a voice made me feel so special but also so much pressure to get across the message that needs to come from this work.
I’m hoping that past Rona summed it up well enough;
On a personal note, this project has meant a lot to me. One of the items I brought in was a photo of my parents, who were both disabled and therefore spent most of their lives going unheard and unnoticed by the world around them. The fact that they are here as part of the exhibition for everyone to see makes me feel like I’ve done them proud and is just a small part of me keeping their legacy alive.
This project has been so important to so many other people because it’s given a voice to people who normally don’t get the chance to be heard. I spent a lot of my life thinking that my voice didn’t matter because, as a young person in care, I didn’t get a say in the things that affected me. It was only when I joined a group of people like me who were using their past experiences to change the system that I realised that my story, though painful in places, could be used to make a positive difference.
Looked after children and care leavers are still so stigmatised in the media, and we often don’t get the chance to have our voices heard, but instead are represented by shocking facts and statistics. I hope that people will see this exhibition and realise how beautiful and talented our young people are and remember the little snippets of their stories that they’re so privileged to see. I hope it makes them realise that we are not just statistics but that we are people, and though sometimes our stories are long and complicated, and often painful, they are worth listening to and learning from.
After the speeches (and the crying) we went upstairs to the exhibit and I was tasked with opening it. Henceforth I did the most dramatic door opening I’ve ever done in my life and the stories waiting in that room were unleashed.
Overall this was just such an amazing experience that I’m so glad I got to be a part of. What this group of people have created is thought provoking and inspiring, and it tells our stories in exactly the way I hoped it would. I’m so grateful to all of them for taking the time to work with us and our beautiful young people all for them to be able to have their voices heard.