Children Can Bring Light To The Darkest Of Days

Cycling home today, I saw a lot of Mums pulling various uniform-clad little ones across traffic lights, book bags trailing behind them. I also saw a couple of late-teens-early-twenties-aged-child-looker-after-ers laughing and giggling with their rabble, jumping and skipping along the road.

I love seeing it, it’s so lovely to see people happy and enjoying life.

It does make me miss the various little people (and slightly bigger people) I’ve been lucky enough to take care of, though. Growing up, I babysat for the vast majority of the village from the age of fourteen (being a Beaver Scout leader and having younger brothers helps with that!). I’ve lost count of how many lounges I’ve sat in, stories I’ve read, and games I’ve played.

Through volunteering, there are even more hours spent looking after children to add up. The hordes that have come through Beavers, Cubs and Scouts (at one point I helped out at all three, spanning two different troops), and those I worked with when volunteering with Shout Out Leeds, with Team v, at a school or two, play groups and church.

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When working in a toy shop for a few years, I met a lot of kids, some very briefly, but there were other more regular shoppers who I got to know quite well. As a student ambassador for a couple of years, I interacted with children and young people of all ages. With many it would be a ten-minute chat, or occasionally a day doing various activities. But residentials were the best bit of the job: whole weeks getting to know some incredible young people, being privileged enough to share their stories, hear their worries, and listen to their hopes and dreams. There are so many young people who I got to know really well, but who I will never see again.

Out of all of the children I’ve looked after, there are a couple who have, perhaps, made the biggest impact on me.

The twins who showed me that even though the world can be ridiculously rubbish, there are still smiles to be had, and Peppa Pig can fix almost anything. They showed me that what my body looks like doesn’t matter, so long as it’s healthy enough to take them swimming. They reminded me that baking can be fun, giggles are infectious, and that mess can be joyful. Their Mum recognised that things could be rough, cancer was rubbish, and hugs from little people were sometimes all that was needed to calm a storm.

The three children belonging to my friend. The youngest, born just a month after Mum’s terminal diagnosis, reminding me that life is cyclical and though people die, and it’s crap that they die, people also live, people are born, and life is precious. The middle one has enough energy to keep a power station active for a week and an imagination to rival that of acclaimed writers, who continues to show me that dreams are important and life isn’t as serious as you think. The eldest, an incredible footballer with a big heart, always outside playing with his friends – a continuous reminder that life is greater than these four walls.

Finally, the two boys who I spent Summer, Easter and Christmas with for three years. The boys who baked with me, swam with me, built dens and Lego models with me, ran down to the river, came to the library and tackled buses with me. The boys who took me to the Great Yorkshire Show, the Royal Armouries and Leeds museum. The two boys who let me kiss things better, let me hug them, let me care about them through a time when the world felt so uncaring. However rubbish my night had been, whatever crap was going through my head, however downright awful I felt, they never failed to lift my mood, show me how to smile and bring light to the darkest of days.

Kids are incredible (as are many of their parents!). I’m not entirely sure how/why their parents decided I was responsible enough to keep their little people alive, but I’m so glad they did. I don’t know how many of them will remember me when they are my age, but I will remember many of them.

Summer has come to a close, and I haven’t done a single day of childcare. It feels very odd. I’ve finally emailed my student ambassador job to let them know I’m not coming back, and had a lovely email in response. I miss some of these children a huge amount. I hope that I can see some of them soon (though a couple of them moved to Guernsey which is mildly inconvenient). I’m growing up and moving on and it’s impossible to take everything from my past to my future, I guess it’s just about recognising that these experiences will always be a part of me and my life – they have shaped me and helped me grow into the person I am today; they have got me through some really tough times. Moving forwards is hard, leaving things I enjoyed and loved is hard – but ultimately, it’s right.

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Regaining Okay

Today, everyone I started uni with three years ago will hand in their final essays (and then probably go off and celebrate with a suitable amount of alcohol followed by a few days/weeks of sleep).

Taking leave from uni in October was the right thing to do. I have no doubt about that. Not going back in January was undoubtedly also the right decision at the time (albeit one which I had slightly less control over).

It doesn’t stop it being odd, though. Last week my Facebook was filled with dissertation hand-ins and this week it’s full of final hand-ins and celebrations. It feels like more than seven months since I was one of them (a living, breathing, highly caffeinated student). It feels like a lifetime ago. A lot has happened and changed in the past seven months, but it’s not just that. I really underestimated how much I was in the uni bubble, and I really underestimated how quickly I would fall out of it and feel so out of it.

Life is bringing more changes for me at the moment. I’m moving out of the place I’ve been living for five months this weekend. I’m starting a new job in the next few weeks. I’ve just finished the course I’m doing at Mind. Lots of things are changing. It’s all positive change but change nonetheless. I’ve come a long way in the past few months, but there is a long, long way still to go. I’m not working on trying to get the ‘old me’ back any more. Too much has happened and changed, and I’ve changed with it, but I’m still working on getting to a place where I have more good days than bad days, a few less ‘grief attacks’, and hopefully a lot less anxiety (something which continues to rudely interrupt my life no matter how much I tell it I’d really quite like it to disappear).

My friendships have changed, too. A lot of people who I expected to stick around haven’t, but that’s okay. It’s life. Some things some people have said or done I’ve not agreed with, but I’ve also learned to stand up to that, and I’ve learned it’s okay to leave people at a point in your life. Not everybody has to make it to your future. I’m learning to trust some of my closer friends more, and to go to them when I need them, something which is really hard to do when one of the people you always thought would be around and be there for you dies.

I don’t regret taking time out from uni. It was the right decision. It has given me space, allowed me some time to breathe, and enabled me to meet some wonderful people who I can now call my friends. I’ve really settled into a new volunteering role (which I’m hoping to keep up alongside my new job), and I would never have found it had I not arrived on their doorstep five months ago and basically spilled my life story to them and asked them if they could help me.

Even with knowing it was the right decision, it is weird seeing everyone finish and I imagine it will be weird come graduation, too. There is also a nagging voice in my head telling me I should have stuck it out and ‘just done it’ (fun little words pop up like ‘failure’ and ‘weak’). I’m trying to ignore it, though. I know that’s not the case. I’ve continued to live, continued to get up every day and do things even when they scare me, I’ve continued to work on regaining ‘okay’.

So Many Charities, So Little Money.

Every time I watch TV at the moment, I see an advert asking me to give money to save some animals. Listening to Spotify, I often hear someone asking me to give money to bring music to war-torn countries. Cycling down the road, I see billboards asking me to give money to feed starving children.

It’s the time of year where charities everywhere are ploughing their marketing budgets into as many adverts as they can muster, over as many different media platforms as possible. There’s an advert at every turn and you simply can’t escape them. They’re counting on your Christmas cheer, hoping that once you’ve had a little too much brandy and one too many mince pies, you might be feeling jovial enough to throw some pennies their way.

Donating is really important. Charities need money to run, and I don’t know how much of their annual income they generate at Christmas but I would guess it’s a fair sum. I really do think it’s great that people are giving to charities, and it is vital that they receive money to carry out their work.

However, what happens when you just don’t have the money to give? Life can be expensive at the best of times but Christmas is notoriously expensive. Whether you’re hosting a big family Christmas, travelling to see friends and relatives, or just having a quiet one at home – there’s no denying that it’s probably the most expensive time of year.

Like many people, I can relate to this. Our family are by no means deprived, but my bank account is definitely crying a little as a result of Christmas shopping. I hate seeing these adverts knowing that I can’t give them money. It can make me feel incredibly guilty and I know I’m not the only one in this position because others have mentioned it to me, too.

One thing you could give, if you don’t have spare cash floating about, is time. Time is so valuable and so precious. With Mum dying this year, I have learned to appreciate time in a way that I never have done before. I remember having a conversation with Mum around the start of uni when I was racking up the volunteering hours like nobody’s business. It started with a chat about how much I should donate to charity each month and we ended up chatting about other ways to help charities. We concluded that I might not give much money right now, and donate my time instead (I had spare time but not really any spare money at the time). Then when I’m older and employed in a more stable job, I’d be likely to have spare money but not so much spare time, so at that point I might give more money but not give as much time.

BBC Radio 1 are currently running a campaign called #1MillionHours. They’re trying to encourage young people to pledge their time to Cancer Research UK, Barnardos, Age UK and/or Oxfam. You can also pledge your time to another charity, then tweet them using the hashtag #1millionhours to make sure your hours are added to the campaign. They want to get 1 million hours of volunteering pledged which will then be carried out over the course of 2016.

Personally, I’ve pledged to Cancer Research UK. If volunteering for them means I can help them to raise money which supports their research, then I’m up for it. Their research could make sure that another 21 year old in 5 years time isn’t facing a Christmas without their Mum. (Side note: I’ve also started putting together a Race for Life team in Mum’s memory and you should absolutely do that if you’re able to – it’s so much fun, especially the Pretty Muddy ones!).

My challenge to you this Christmas is that if you’re like me and have the time but not much money, rather than seeing these adverts and feeling guilty that you can’t help, or just brushing them off: pledge some hours to them. Join #1millionhours, and give the gift of time to those that need it most.

Letters don’t define your life.

As most people who have Twitter will know, yesterday was A-Level results day. The day when 18 years olds anxiously refresh UCAS and shake their way into school to collect brown envelopes containing their fate. Have they got the letters needed to get them to their choice of university? Or are they destined to a year of ‘gap-yah-ing’ it up and working out what to do with their lives?

Either way, those 3 (or more) letters do not define you as a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’ – something which is hard to trust or believe, especially at the age of 18 when you’re the only one of your friends to have dropped a grade.

I’m 20 now, it’s two years since I got my results, but I can still remember it clearly. I received grades which anybody would be pleased to open. They got me to the university that I wanted to attend and would not hold me back from anything I wanted to do. But I wasn’t happy. Why? They weren’t a perfect score. I went to a school where most people were aiming for an A or A* in most subjects. The stress of repeated testing and constant pressure had really taken it’s toll on me. I always thought of myself as ‘academic’ (however you define that) but on the receipt of those results I was lost.

In the last couple of years, I have taken steps to define myself by something other than my grades. Volunteering in general, but particularly Team v (a volunteering program training the next generation of social leaders) is something which has really helped me with this. It was the first time in my memory that I was learning by doing, not by textbook, and more importantly – learning because I wanted to, not because I felt I had to. If I made a mistake it was fine, that was simply part of the learning process. At interview they didn’t want to know my grades, they just wanted passion and potential. I couldn’t tell you the grades of a single one of my Team v friends but I could rattle off grades of my school friends at the drop of a hat.

I have made huge steps in learning that there is life outside grades and that the person you are, and more importantly your own personal happiness, are much more valuable then any letter defining your ability to recite reactions will ever be.

It’s a long road and it’s a hard thing to accept when we are brought up in a society where newspapers tell us that ‘exams are getting easier’ and ‘unemployment is rising’. Admittedly – last night I felt like that 18 year old “failure” again. But it’s so important to remember – your grades are not you. Do not let letters define your life.

Check out this video for more inspiration.

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Faith

Over the last couple of months, I have been losing my faith. I don’t have a religious faith, but I believe in good people; in the ability of good people to change things. Due to various things that have been going on in my life, I have been struggling to keep believing this. I’ve had a lot to work through and it’s taken my head away from always being where it needs to be.

The moment I realised how bad this had got was when I was stood in a room with a bunch of amazing young people doing awesome things in their communities and I just couldn’t feel ‘it’. Don’t ask me what ‘it’ is, because I don’t know. But I didn’t have it.

Volunteering is something I have built my life and my identity up around. It has been such a major part of my teenage years, the time I’ve been developing who I am, what I’m doing, what’s made me, ‘me’. Cue, a bit of an identity crisis!

Long story short, after a lot of fumbling around in the dark, trying to work out what on earth is going on, I’m still not entirely sure. However, I have realised that it is down to me to make my way in life. It is up to me to work these things out and there is as much time as I need. Nothing and nobody is going to ‘save me’ or ‘fix’ anything. It is not their responsibility, it is mine. Yes, I can use all my resources but at the end of the day, I have to work this thing out, whatever it is. I will keep volunteering, I will keep studying and working and I will get out of this.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been child minding again; one four year old, one five year old. They are gorgeous children, very well behaved. They have cheeky smiles and giggle at silly things. They hold my hand when we cross the road and bury their heads in me when they’re scared.

Today, the four year old handed me a daisy which was ‘for me’. For now, that’s all I need

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A Stick.

This weekend we took 20 six to eight year old boys on a Beaver Scout sleepover. The setting was fabulous. There was a log cabin in the middle of a wood, a place for the Scouts to camp, a wooden play area and a rustic, open church. We had gorgeous weather, the air was crisp, there wasn’t a raindrop in site and the orange leaves crunched underfoot.

After lunch, we let the boys go. They ran outside, jumped in the leaves, rolled around on the floor, and did tarzan jumps with a piece of rope. A number of them found sticks and spend ages hitting trees. Some of the sticks were drum sticks, others were lightsabers, some were fencing poles, others were a particularly special object. Their imagination knew no bounds.

Later that evening, they were all gathered around the campfire, singing songs, joining in with the older children and generally having a good time. There wasn’t a face without a smile. Once we’d got back that evening and settled them down, nearly every child slept through the entire night, not waking until 7am the next morning (virtually unheard of for a six year old!)

Over the entire weekend, no child had access to a phone, a computer, a TV or any other form of screen. Not once, over the entire weekend did a single child ask me for any of these items. Nor did I ever hear the phrase ‘I’m bored’. No child complained that we ‘made them go outside’, in fact, most of them complained when they had to come in.

On Saturday, I asked one boy what he’d been doing the morning before he came. The response I got was ‘playing on my DS’. Once we let that child out of the building, he was off like a shot, running around and enjoying the fresh air. The next day, he listed all the many electronic items he owned. Once again, as soon as we opened the door, he was running around and jumping in the leaves. But I bet when he got home, he was straight back in front of a screen.

Kids were born to be outside. They were made to run and jump. They bounce. They need fresh air and the ability to be free and run off their limitless energy. They don’t want to be cooped up indoors.

Parents seem fearful of taking children outside. ‘What if they get cold?’ ‘What if someone steals them?’ ‘What if they get run over?’. I’m not saying these aren’t valid questions, but there are solutions to these problems. Many parents may claim they don’t have time, they’re busy, or they’re just too stressed. But I can assure you; an hour jumping in leaves with your child will lower your stress levels no end.

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A Brief Part Of Life.

Last week, the young boy who inspired me to start Escape The Frame (https://www.facebook.com/EscapeTheFrame) left my Beaver group to move to Cubs. It’s a necessary, but difficult transition. I think I found it more difficult then he did!

Looking back, it’s touching to see how much he’s grown and developed in the last year. A boy who used to hide under tables and refuse to join in, looked up at me with excited eyes and told me how much he was looking forward to going to Cubs. He then assured me that he had enjoyed Beavers and said thank you he’d had a good time. He looked me in the eyes as he said this.

I’ve loved working with him for the last year. It’s been challenging at times, there have been good evenings and bad evenings, but it’s great, now, to see him being so confident. I’ll miss him asking me for my camera every week and coming to sit on my knee but he’s growing up and moving on to bigger things now. (I have been informed that his uncle bought him a camera for Christmas, so I’m expecting to be invited to one of his showcases one day!)

He’s been a major part of my life for the past year or so. If I’ve been feeling rubbish, sometimes he’ll come out with something that’ll brighten me up. I’ve felt needed and wanted and have known that I’ve been making a difference. I hope he’s felt comfortable in my presence and I hope he will continue to grow and thrive. I don’t think that I will ever forget him or his smile. I doubt he’ll remember me in a few years, but you never know.

It’s amazing how people’s paths can cross for the briefest amount of time, yet they can make such an impact on each others lives… I think that’s a really big part of what volunteering’s all about.