The must-have bag that’s also a force for good

Emma Higginbotham,-Writer

An 18th birthday is a celebration for most teens, but it can be a worrying time for those in care who must suddenly become independent, writes Emma Higginbotham

Thousands of 18-year-olds have packed their bags and headed off to university – effectively leaving home, but safe in the knowledge that they’ll be back with their families come the Christmas holidays.

But for the 10,000 young people leaving the UK’s care system at that age, the future is much more daunting. Care abruptly stops, and they’re cast into adult life with all the responsibilities that entails, often with little or no support.

‘Far from being a time to celebrate, turning 18 for a young person in care can feel incredibly scary,’ says Katharine Sacks-Jones, CEO of Become, the national charity for children in care and young care leavers.

‘They’re forced to become independent overnight, often well before they’re ready. This can be in the middle of exams, or starting college or work – leaving them with the added worries of where they’ll live, or how they’ll pay their bills.’

A Government survey found that more than a third of care leavers felt that they’d left care too early. Even among those who did feel they’d left at the right time, many said they were not taught essential skills, such as how to shop, cook or manage money.

That’s why since 2002, Become has organised National Care Leavers Week, an annual event to highlight the achievements of care-experienced young people while campaigning for improvements to the system. The theme for 2023 was an acronym of CARE: Celebrate care leavers, Amplify their voices, Raise awareness of challenges, and Encourage change in policy and practice.

It’s hard to reach out for help, and that feeling of isolation, of just being completely alone, is devastating

Michael Archibald

Michael Archibald from Scotland knows only too well how tough it can be. His complex home life meant being put into kinship care (when a child lives with a family member, or friend, if a parent is unable to look after them), and at 17 he was placed in supported housing. Now 18, he’s studying psychology at Strathclyde University and living in student accommodation, but he’s one of the lucky ones: only 6% of care leavers go to university, compared to 40% of their peers.

‘It can be really difficult for care-experienced young people, especially when they don’t have those educational places, and they’re surrounded by other people that have ideal family households,’ Michael says. ‘It’s hard to reach out for help, and that feeling of isolation, of just being completely alone, is devastating.’

As part of National Care Leavers Week, the John Lewis Partnership announced a new range of products designed specifically by talented young care leavers.

The first, a tote bag designed by Michael Archibald, is available to buy in-store and online at John Lewis and Waitrose now, with all profits going to Building Happier Futures, the JLP’s employment scheme and charity partnership that supports care-experienced people. More collaborations and products will follow.

Michael applied to take part in the initiative after seeing an ad on Facebook. ‘I love drawing – art has always been my mechanism for coping – so I filled out the form and submitted an example of one of my art pieces,’ he says. ‘When I got the call saying, “We’d love to work with you,” I was absolutely buzzing.’

He was compensated for his design, and offered work experience at agency Saatchi & Saatchi. ‘It was a fantastic thing to be involved in from the start. The range is going to be really exciting, and I can’t wait to see it grow arms and legs and go wild.’

An image of Michael and Sharon standing in-front of the Happier Brighter Futures logo on the wall

In the meantime, Michael is running to be a member of Scottish Youth Parliament, and hopes to become a voice for all the young people who’ve been in a similar situation to him.

‘Being care-experienced isn’t something that anyone should be ashamed of, because it is never the child’s fault,’ he concludes. ‘And care experienced people are capable of really, really amazing things – as long as you give them the chance.’

Support care leavers by adding a Building Happier Futures charity donation

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