From care to caring

Jacqueline Williamson.  (2203JB70)
Jacqueline Williamson. (2203JB70)

Last year, Kinship Care, the organisation founded by Jacqueline Williamson, helped 122 families in the North West,

The charity reaches out to people looking after children within their extended families when parents are unable to do so. In some cases, parents might have died; in many others they are simply not capable of taking care of their children because of issues like drug and alcohol addiction and many others. Families take on the care of children in these vulnerable situations because they don’t want them being taken into state care,

In founding the charity, Jacqueline was coming from a position of front line knowledge.

Today she’s a successful 36 year-old with a senior role in the First Housing organisation. With a degree, two masters and about to embark on a PHD, Jacqueline’s academic record is outstanding. So, too, is the story of her personal background. When people speak about triumph in the midst of adversity, these are the kind of stories they tell.

Jacqueline spent the bulk of her childhood in care. She was born in Fivemiletown in Tyrone. Her mother became unable to look after her, and so Jacqueline entered the care system. She grew up spending time in a number of children’s homes in Derry. While she also spent time in Armagh, she describes Derry as her “last most settled place”, and returned to the North West from Armagh in 1991 to be close to her sister, who has since passed away.

Looking back on her time in care, Jacqueline has nothing but praise for the people who looked after her.

“You’re sharing a home with 30 other children, that’s the reality of being in care,” she says.

“I met a range of different people during those years and I have to say my experiences are all of people who were very good and compassionate to me. Everybody has their own unique experience of the care system and there is the stereotype of the child who grows up in care, but I think a lot of the time those young people are wrongly stigmatised. Young people in the care system quickly become very skilled. They have to become more independent because they don’t have that close family network and their negotiation skills develop very quickly.

“Unfortunately, people have a tendency to write off children in care,” says Jacqueline.

At the age of 16 Jacqueline had come back to Derry to be close to her sister. Without the support of a family around her, she became homeless.

“I was just past 16, that was pretty tough,” she says.

A teenager on her own in the world, life was about to get even tougher for Jacqueline when she became pregnant. Her son John Paul is now 20 and studying psychology and criminology in America on a full athletics scholarship. Jacqueline worked tirelessly to give him every chance herself but says being a mother at such a young age was difficult.

“I was raising a child as a child myself,” she says. “It was a huge struggle. There were times when I didn’t even have enough money to buy electric to heat his bottle. I was living on £52 a fortnight, it was just a real struggle.”

It was help from the organisation known as Foyle Homeless (now First Housing) which helped Jacqueline turn a corner in her life.

“A resettlement officer called first and provided me with some support and I soon found out I was able to avail of free childcare. That was a stepping stone to other things for me.”

Jacqueline’s first work was training ex-offenders and from there she went on to study for a housing degree at Magee, all the while raising her son as a single parent. She soon found her working in the housing sector in the area of housing rights, using her own experiences to help others.

“I loved it. I was dealing with people who were homeless and they relied on me to win their case for them.”

Jacqueline then went on to work for the housing support charity Smart Move, where she became head of fundraising for the whole of Northern Ireland. After six years there, Jacqueline returned to full time work in Derry with First Housing, where she is employed as the Head of Fundraising and Development with the leading homeless charity.

It was a hugely personal experience which first introduced the mother-of-one to Kinship Care.

“I raised my sister’s child for five years,” she says.

“For me, it was hard adjusting and adapting and I struggled with the additional responsibility, but I didn’t want to see her going into care. During that time, I got to thinking, how is everbody else doing this? I started to meet other people, mostly grandparents, who were looking after very young children. A lot of these carers were older and weren’t getting a single penny of financial support.

“Many of them were ashamed to come forward and ask for help because of conflict within their wider family and the stigma of having a relative who wasn’t able to care for their children. The first time I met a lot of these people they behaved as if they were doing something wrong. These were people who had stepped in to keep children that they love out of the care system. I was seeing high levels of poverty and it wasn’t a nice thing to watch. I’d go into homes where there was no carpet on the floor and no oil in the tank. There were very stressed carers and very happy children, but these carers needed and deserved care and support themselves.”

With that philosophy in mind, and wanting to do something to help allow vulnerable children to be cared for in a loving family environment, Jacqueline founded Kinship Care NI in April 2010. Since then, hundreds of families from across the North have received support. In partnership with Buttle UK, the organisation provide practical help to kinship carers.

“One of the first questions we ask is ‘How can we assist your household?,” says Jacqueline.

“So many people are leaving themselves in financial hardship when they take on the responsibility of a relative’s children. In some cases, carers are forced to give up work because they can’t afford childcare. In other situations you have a family who already have children of their own to look after and provide for and all of a sudden they find themselves with extra mouths to feed and that’s where we can step in and help people and guide them in terms of their entitlements.”

Recently Jacqueline made a public appeal on Facebook for a donation to help three children who’d been placed with relatives in Derry after the sudden death of their mother in England. She was overwhelmed with the response and thanked people in an article in the Journal.

She says raising awareness of the challenges faced by kinship carers is crucial.

“We really want to boost the profile of the organisation and get as much help and recognition for these carers as we can. All of us who have children would want to know those children would be looked after if anything happened us. You can’t put a price on a child being placed with a relative.”

This year, Jacqueline will undertake a four year doctorate at University College Cork where she’ll undertake an indepth study into kinship care. Ahead of that, together with 15 walkers including kinship carers and volunteers, she’ll begin a four day walk to Stormont next month.

“On April 4, at 10am, we’ll leave from Lisnagelvin and walk 22 miles per day until we arrive at Stormont on April 8. We’ve been sponsored by Lavery’s Bar in Belfast, Unlimited, Smart Move and First Housing and we’re being hosted in Stormont, which is a great way for us to bring the issue of kinship care straight to our MLA’s who will hear stories from the carers themselves. We’ll have carers from the North West, Antrim and Belfast.”

Before that, Jacqueline and her fellow volunteers will put a few local male personalities through their paces tomorrow (Monday) at Natural Touch in Pump Street when the men put their best legs forward for a waxing treatment. Delighted with the response, she says she’s hoping each one of these events will put the concept of kinship care on the agenda.

“That’s what we’re hoping for. Recently I met a woman who was diagnosed with mouth cancer, has had both lips removed and is looking after her nine year old son, who’s autistic. There are some remarkable people out there doing their best with very little help. And they deserve our support,” says Jacqueline.

Find Kinship Care on Facebook if you want to find out more.