At 27, most people will probably be thinking about getting married, buying their first home and building some foundations for the rest of their lives.
Kiera Coyle is 27 and as well as bringing up her five year old son, she’s the legal guardian of her 16 year old brother, her 12 year old sister and is legally responsible for their care and any decisions taken for their welfare.
It’s a role that Kiera, from Glendale Park in the city, carries out with the help of her brothers Kieran and Kevin. Four years ago, when she was 23, Kiera’s mother Martina died in her early fifties. At that stage Kiera’s younger sister Caoimhe was eight, and her brother Colm was 12. While both of the children lived with their father Fergal, Kiera took a keen interest in their welfare and the siblings remained close.
Then last year, in a cruel twist, Fergal was diagnosed as having renal failure, and passed away in September 2012.
“At that stage, the priority was Colm and Caoimhe,” says Kiera, who was given an award for voluntary carer of the year this week by Funeral Services of Northern Ireland together with her brother Kieran.
“People were always saying to me that it must have been really tough, but they were so young. I was a bit older so I could cope but they needed a lot of support. Colm also has ADHD so there were challenges there too. Both Caoimhe and Colm needed someone to be there for them and my own son Riley had just started Primary one.”
Under an informal arrangement, after the death of her father, Kiera brought her younger brother and sister to live with her in her small two bedroom flat.
“You could definitely say it was a tight squeeze,” smiles Kiera.
Like many people who take over the care of members of their own family when parents are no longer able to, Kiera says life was tough.
“I had no real legal rights and it took a long time to get things like child benefit sorted out. It was a worrying time because even though I was the one going to parent teacher meetings and sending the two of them out to school every day, I wasn’t able to make any legal decisions for Colm and Caoimhe and if they’d needed emergency treatment, I wouldn’t have been able to sign a form to allow that to happen. Colm gets medication every month and I wasn’t able to sign for that either.”
Determined to get things in order for the good of the whole family, Caoimhe approached a solicitor.
“My brother Kieran, who lives nearby in Ederowen, was going to be sharing the responsibility for Colm and Caoimhe so a resident’s order, which is what would happen in a lot of situations like this, wasn’t an option for us because it only allowed for the children to be looked after by one person, in one place. To get the guardianship order we had to go through the High Court, but we did get it, and it was definitely the best way forward for us.
“It gives Colm and Caoimhe so much more security.”
In the nine months after the death of their father Colm and Caoimhe lived with Kiera in a two bedroomed flat while the family waited to be rehoused.
“We were delighted when we got word that we were getting a bigger house,” said Kiera.
“Strangely enough we got the keys on Friday 13th and just a few days after that the new house was broken into and the boiler was stolen and the whole place was flooded.
“We couldn’t believe that had happened. That was really tough,”
With support from her wider family as well as ongoing help from her brothers Kieran and Kevin, Kiera is continuing to raise Colm and Caoimhe.
“I’m so proud of them both, they’re both doing really well. Caoimhe has just started first year and Colm is doing really well too.”
Kiera says she didn’t even know what Kinship Care was, however her situation is familiar to Kinship Care NI Chief Executive Jacqueline Williamson, who works with countless other people in Derry and across the North who have taken over the care of members of their own family.
Praising the Coyle family, Jacqueline said: “It is not an easy task for anyone to take on the role of parent to two children, especially at
such a young age, and at the same time deal with all the financial, legal, emotional and other responsibilities that come along with taking care of two children. And, yet Kiera and Kieran have done just that.
“Despite all the ups and downs and hardships Kiera and Kieran have experienced over the last year they have demonstrated a resilience and love for their younger brother and sister that has made them stronger as a family.
When things have been tough they have dusted themselves
down and got on with it for the sake of the children.
Kiera and Kieran are two very exceptional individuals, who are now helping and supporting other young people in a similar position to them.
I am delighted that they have won the Funeral Services Northern Ireland Carers Award.
Kiera is now helping others with Kinship Care NI, an organisation funded by the Big Lottery which is set to open a new centre in Derry, soon.