“I grew up in poverty, so I’d never been on a holiday before – we barely had enough money for food, let alone going out, even a trip to the beach which was only an hour away would have been impossible,” says 22-year-old, James Elliott*, an ambassador for Go Beyond, one of the charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal.
But when Elliott was 10, a social worker offered him the opportunity for a week away with Go Beyond, and he leapt at the chance. “They took me down to a property somewhere on the south coast, I don’t remember exactly where,” he says, now. “It wasn’t grand or extravagant, but it was without a doubt the best week I’d ever had.”
Growing up in south-west England, Elliott cared for his mum from a young age. A complicated woman who had her demons, she’d been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and regularly misused alcohol and drugs. “I used to care for her physically, doing the things she couldn’t: making dinner, cleaning the house,” he recalls. “But I was also her primary source of emotional support.”
When she was having a crisis,” Elliott explains, “I was the shoulder for her to cry on, making sure she was OK, helping her to keep safe.
“Sometimes she was fine – she made a banging lasagne when she could – but there were times when her mental health was too much to cope with. She liked to drink vodka, she liked to take cocaine, and there were times when she was too drunk or too high to look after the house, or me and my sister.”
Elliott’s younger sister was born nine years after him, and was just a baby during the worst days of his childhood. At 10, he’d learned to change her nappies, heat her bottles, and would be the one who’d get up when she cried at night.
“I went to school in quite a well-off area which meant I was one of the only children on free school meals,” Elliott explains. “I certainly felt isolated from my peers, like I was different. I loved school, it was my only respite from being a carer, it was the place I could go and expand my mind, but I remember always feeling exhausted.
“I struggled to do homework and my friends would say, ‘Why don’t you just do it?’ or, ‘Why are you so tired?’ but I couldn’t admit I’d been up until 4am helping my mum through a mental health crisis. It was lonely.”
Though social workers were overseeing the family, Elliott felt only frustration towards them as they “high-handedly” talked over him and ignored his input. “I get it,” he says, magnanimously, “I was 10, but at the same time I was much older.”
The suggestion of a Go Beyond stay offered an escape, but also caused anxiety. “I used to worry every time I went into school about leaving my mum and sister alone, so to be away on a residential trip for a full five days terrified me,” he remembers.
The charity’s staff looked after him though, offering support and reassurance at every turn. More than anything, he remembers how kind they were to him, focused entirely on unwriting the subconscious lessons he’d absorbed, which had forced him to grow old beyond his years. For the first time in his life, he could be a child.
“We went to a water park with a swimming pool – it was one of the first times I’d ever been swimming, we played games, we did activities, I remember staying up late – it felt like a big sleepover,” he says.
“I remember absolutely loving it. For the first time I met other children who were in the same position as me and being able to talk to them was so eye-opening. I didn’t feel alone anymore. I’d simply never experienced anything like it before.”
What Elliott really took from the trip was an idea that he could be his own person, beyond his caring responsibilities. “It gave me breathing room to figure myself out, empower myself, and to think about what I wanted,” he says.
That was the seed which, in time, would germinate and grow within the young man. “I always had a passion for helping people but I began to realise how many young people felt voiceless, had bad social workers and weren’t being heard,” Elliott explains. “No one thinks children should be around drugs but they are – I was, I couldn’t escape it – and as I got older I gradually began to realise what a taboo subject was. No one wanted to talk to young people about drugs and parental substance abuse and someone had to.”
Applying himself at school, Elliott finally had something on his horizon, and a fire under him. “I studied Health And Social Care in sixth-form and then when I started applying to university, I pursued a social work course, and now I’m a social worker myself. I love helping families. Whether they’re in similar situations to the one I grew up in or they’re facing different things, I am never more motivated than when I’m helping them face those challenges and keeping children safe.”
Now, the tables have turned: it’s Elliott who refers young people in care for Go Beyond holidays. The difference he sees in them after, he says, is nothing short of astonishing.
“They come back with more confidence,” he says. “They’re empowered, and just like me, they come back with the ability to think about themselves and what they want. One who was really struggling to go into school everyday came back from Go Beyond and is now going into school every day and applying themselves.”
Elliott and his sister were placed in foster care in 2014, and their mother passed away from a drug overdose a few years later. Having spent so long with him caring for her, it took the pair a while to feel like siblings again. “I had her round for tea last week,” he says. “She’s 13 now and we’ve finally got a normal relationship. Now we chat, and fight, and laugh like siblings.”
At 22, with a bright future ahead of him, Elliott’s is a story of tenacity, perseverance, and hope, but he credits it all to that one week stay with Go Beyond. “I just want to reiterate how amazing this charity is,” he summarises. “I don’t know what more there is to say than that.”
*Due to the nature of his work, Elliott’s name has been altered.Uncategorised