The ultimate labour of love

Carers Centre - Michelle Smith, chief officer Blackpool Carers Centre
Carers Centre - Michelle Smith, chief officer Blackpool Carers Centre
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James, 23, wants to join the Merchant Navy. It’s all he’s dreamed of since crewing a tall ship on a trip funded by Blackpool Carers Centre.

It didn’t just give him a break from caring duties but a window on the world beyond four walls.

James left university last year to resume caring for his bi-polar mother and hopes the health service will throw him a lifeline.

“I’m officially classed a carer but cutbacks don’t help,” he adds. “The nurses are busy and sometimes miss appointments.

“Mum gets anxious, blames herself. Being bi-polar is like that. Medication helps but when she gets bad only I can talk her round. Dad can’t. She takes it out on him. I’m the buffer zone.”

James is one of 290,000 young adult carers in Britain today, some 1000 or more in Blackpool alone. They are owed a debt that goes far deeper than money.

Tomorrow Michelle Smith, chief officer of Blackpool Carers Centre, will start to call in that debt. Her independent charity hosts the Children Who Care conference at the Hilton Hotel which features the pioneering work of Blackpool-born Saul Becker, professor of social policy at Nottingham University, the world’s foremost expert on young carers. He is expected to reveal the latest figures on numbers involved. “We see is the tip of the iceberg,” he admits.

Michelle says carers hold families together, keep loved ones out of crisis or residential care, at cost to their own work or play time, health and welfare, education, opportunities, income, or private life. The centre now offers a raft of measures to help but needs new trustees, volunteers, longer term secure funding, and a drop in centre young carers can call their own.

“Over the next two years we are working towards a carers’ hotel providing respite for carers, employment, training for young people and a revenue source. The word carer itself is a barrier. We have to use that terminology to get money. People don’t want another label but you can’t write a funding bid for someone’s son or daughter or mum.”

The team’s particularly pleased with having won funding to give carers a break – £30,000 from Blackpool Council and the NHS. “We’re looking at how it can be accessed. Carers can get up to £250 for a spa treatment, gym membership, a holiday. And carers themselves decide who gets it.”

Dawn Maher, young carers support worker, joined the Robson Way centre as a social work student on placement, but identified so many needs her research secured funding for a specific young carers support project – now under her lead. Some carers are still in primary school, others at high school – such as Kerri-Ann Leighton pictured with Wade Cumming who attend the Young Carers group at Claremont Community Centre.

Tom McMurdo, whose father Nigel founded the young carers service six years ago, started as a volunteer at 17, became a trustee at 21, established a board giving young carers a greater voice, and now helps shape service delivery.

Young carers’ champions include Isobel, 20, who’s looked after her gran and dad since she was 11. She said: “I left high school in Year Nine because I couldn’t do too much, so got home schooled. I am also a care worker. It’s harder for my mum to cope with because it’s such a role reversal for her.

“I don’t call myself a carer, to be honest. It’s a silly word. It’s just something you do, part of life. But I’d like more money for the centre as the funding’s very restrictive.”

Zoe, 17, agrees. Her mother has muscular dystrophy. “Unless you saw her in her wheelchair you wouldn’t think anything was wrong. I plan my day from hour to hour. There’s no room for spontaneity. I need to know what I’m doing. You can’t just take off with mates.

“The Carers’ Centre knows this and helps. They have helped me do residential courses and the Duke of Edinburgh award and it’s fun because you meet new people – but you also know you’re not letting anyone down because the support is there.”

Chief officer Michelle says the work of the centre will widen in future years. “Cutbacks mean things are about to get a lot tougher – and these young carers already have it tough.

“Our’s is a voluntary relationship. We involve families. We also remember we are dealing with young people. They appear mature but take them on a residential and the barriers come down and they run around like other kids. Sometimes they cry when they go home – but mostly they see their caring role as a positive thing because they feel closer to their family.”

Steve Cassidy, who works for Beaverbrooks, is keen to encourage local companies to play their part. “Beaverbrooks gives everyone a minimum of two days of ‘work’ time to volunteer for charity and community projects. I help at the Young Carers’ Youth Club and get a massive buzz spending time there.

“It’s amazing helping young people unlock potential and creativity and hopefully I can help them grow and overcome any challenges they face just by spending a few minutes talking and listening to what is happening in their day to day lives.

“They’re inspirational. I’m a better person for the great experience and opportunity Blackpool Carers have given me.”