I’ve been off the reservation for a while. Part of that reason is I’ve been working away on a side project, and I’m delighted to share the story of that project with you as I head into the next exciting phase of things! So get a cuppa, and get comfortable. I would like to tell you a story. A story about a tweet, a bag, and changing a child’s life.
So, as many of you know, one of the hats I wear is as a Childline volunteer. Now, despite the absolute BEST of training, and despite the myriad of different types of calls that we deal with on any given shift in the Childline unit, there are certain types of calls that always come home with me at the end of my shift.
Those calls relate to particular types of children and young people – those who are experiencing some type of emergency accommodation. I always feel as though they share a common theme – a sense of loss, of floating, of not feeling like they were anchored anywhere. I always wanted to do more for these children, because while any issue that causes a child to contact Childline can be life-changing and tough, and nothing any child should ever experience, I felt that these children in particular lost their childhood when they lost their homes.
I wasn’t really sure what I could do though, so I carried on with my regular life, and percolated on it from time to time.
Another of the hats I wear is as a PhD student in child and youth research. In my office I work side by side with researchers whose work touched on these areas, so I learned almost without meaning to all about the policy, practice and outcome issues surrounding these young people. And every time I learned a bit more, my heart broke for them a bit more.
Now, as I’m a young-ish twenty-something, I am not unusual in that I pretty much live my life online. Twitter is my social media drug of choice, and it was as I was browsing on twitter one day early this year when I saw an article shared by the British comedian Sarah Millican. This article talked about a British charity called Buddy Bags. This charity gave a backpack of belongings to every child on arrival into domestic abuse shelters. This idea was so simple, I was struck by its elegance. I immediately wondered if there was something similar in Ireland, so I could go and give my time with them. So, I went back to the auld reliable internet and did some googling. Nothing seemed to show up, so I emailed the British charity to see if they were of anything similar to them over here.
I got a one line email in response. It read ‘no…interested?’
I thought ‘yeah, I guess, but what the hell do I know? Where would I even start?’
Not having answers to those questions, I put it in the back of my mind with the other thoughts and carried on about my regular life again.
A week later, again I was back on Twitter, and I saw someone share a tweet from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, looking for applications for their shiny new academy program. They wanted to know if I had an idea to help solve a social problem in Ireland. Sure, wasn’t I sitting on one, not knowing what to do with it? So I applied, with no more than thoughts in my head, and, to be honest, vague enough thoughts. But SEI believed in my thoughts, even though I sat in the room with all the other amazing projects and looked around on the first day of the academy, as they talked about prototypes and previous funding pitches, and thought ‘what have I got myself in for? I’ve a thought in my head! How on earth am I going to actually make this happen?’
Today, I’m so pleased to report, I’m making it happen. I have a prototype bag together. I have almost a full board put together. I have some brands interested in working with me, including recent word from Eir that they are interested in exploring the idea of sponsorship.
But let me go back a step. What exactly am I making happen? For me, when I looked into it, the domestic abuse, homeless and foster care sectors were more interlinked in Ireland than they are in the UK. We also have the horrendous direct provision system. To give you a quick snapshot of what we’re talking about here, there were 2621 children in domestic violence emergency accommodation in 2015. As of August this year, there were 3,048 homeless children. In 2015, 1,368 children were place in non-relative foster care. And as of March this year, there were 1,191 children in direct provision. That’s a total of 8,228 children possibly without an anchor, forced to leave at least part of their childhood behind as they navigate whatever this new life looks like for them.
Now, I’m a pragmatist. I know I can’t change the housing system. I can’t make fathers not abuse mothers or vice versa. I can’t transform these children’s lives into the happy experiences they should be. These are deep and complex issues, and it will take foundational societal change for them to be eradicated. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And it doesn’t mean I don’t think Mála Chara can make a very real difference.
A mála chara is the irish buddy bag. It is a backpack that contains brand new belongings for the child. Practical, therapeutic, and fun belongings, theirs forever. It gives them something solid in a time of chaos, and gives them permission to be children again at a time when maybe that isn’t usually possible.
I appreciate that I am looking to have an impact across four large areas with literally thousands of children involved. But my dad has a saying. Whenever I get stressed when I was younger, he would ask me ‘how do you eat an elephant?’ I’ve been asked that question so many times that now we just remind each other of the answer whenever either of us is feeling overwhelmed: ‘one bite at a time’.
There were fifteen amazing projects that worked through the SEI Academy over the past few months. It’s an experience I couldn’t possibly describe in one blog post, so I will be writing about the actual experience in another post, but it has changed my life, undoubtedly. As part of the academy, we were invited to apply for the chance to pitch for funding. Most of us did. Five of use were chosen. I was lucky enough to be one of those five. On Monday, I will make my pitch to the board, and I hope to report any news back as soon as I have it, but whether I receive funding or not, Mala Chara is a real thing now, and upwards is the only direction we’ll move.