With Kinship care arrangements on the rise across Scotland, the National Lottery funded Big Hearts Befrienders project is helping kinship young people to thrive. In this blog, we speak to Cathy Owens, Kinship carer to her grandson Nathan, and his befriender Jackie Meikle about the power of befriending.
It took just one phone call to change Cathy Owens’ life forever.
A normal working day like every other, Cathy answered the phone to the words no grandparent wants to hear. “Will you take your grandson? If you can’t, he’ll be taken into care.”
With the words ringing in her ears Cathy had a “split second” to make her decision. “Of course, my answer was yes”, says Cathy. “My daughter had problems with alcohol so wasn’t able to look after him and I couldn’t let him go to live with strangers. I already had a strong bond with him so there was no other decision to make.”
Nathan was just 14 months old when Cathy received that call. At the time she was 45 with a new job but after six months she was forced to quit to become a full-time kinship carer to Nathan.
Now ten years later, Cathy says that while times have been testing, she has no regrets. She says: “Nathan has a learning disability which means he needs everything to be regimented and to have routine. It gives me peace of mind to know that I am responsible for him and that he remains part of our family unit.”
It was in 2017 when Cathy first heard about Big Hearts Befrienders Project. The service, delivered by the Big Hearts Community Trust received a National Lottery Community Fund award of £149,423 to help match volunteer befrienders with kinship young people.
“It sounded like a great opportunity for Nathan to meet someone new and to have another positive role model in his life to do things with”, says Cathy.
Recalling the first day Nathan and his befriender Jackie met, Cathy shares a heart-warming anecdote: “I’ll always remember Jackie arriving at the house carrying a Hearts FC football while Nathan was playing with his Hibs FC ball. Jackie joked that she was going to throw his ball over the fence and that was it; a bond made over a love of football and laughter.”
And this is where volunteer befriender, 34-year-old Jackie Meikle, takes up the story.
“Nathan is an awesome young man and it’s been a privilege getting to know him”, she says. “People think that the only one to benefit from our meet ups is Nathan but no-one realises just how much he has helped me.
“Befriending is something that I came across after I had to leave the job that I loved. I was a chef but a sudden, chronic skin disorder meant that I had to give it up. The Big Hearts Befriending Project was the first to reply to my application and I am so glad they did. I was used to making 800 people happy every night with a hearty meal and now I get to make one special young man happy through befriending.”
After completing training and PVG checks, Jackie and Nathan began meeting up once a week last October. “We do whatever Nathan chooses”, says Jackie. “Football, pool, skating and playing at the park are some of our favourites. Nathan also transitioned to high school recently so some of our time has been spent talking about that.”
Jackie says: “I’ve noticed such a difference in him in recent months. He used to get very upset about change but now, once we talk things over, he sees alternatives and is more open to trying new things.”
Cathy, who gets some precious time to herself when Nathan and Jackie are out, also sees a huge difference in her grandson. “I love it when Nathan comes home with a big smile on his face and tells me about the things he’s done with Jackie. He is now so much more confident and self-assured. It’s wonderful to see his wee personality evolving and that’s thanks to magic of befriending.”
The Big Hearts Befriending Project, in partnership with @SpaceBroomhouse , offers the opportunity for children aged 7 to 14 years old who are in kinship care to take part in social activities every week, in the company of an adult and trained Big Hearts volunteer. You can find out more about the project here.