Northern Ireland man ensures no child carries their life in a bin bag
Former foster dad Dave Linton, from Lurgan, has started an innovative business that aims to provide children in care with stylish luggage to carry their possessions in when they move.
When Dave Linton discovered that children in care put all their worldly possessions into a black bin bag every time they moved, he was determined to do something to change that.
The former foster carer was shocked to find out that every time a child is moved into a new home or accommodation, all they have to carry their personal items and clothes in is a plastic bag.
And for those who find themselves growing up in the care system, who are often lonely and isolated in society, physical possessions invariably take on added significance.
Now he is doing his utmost to initiate change, having launched a lifestyle brand based on the admirable premise that "no child in care should carry their life in a bin bag".
A youth worker turned social entrepreneur, Dave (44), from Newtownabbey but now living in Lurgan, is the founder and executive director of Madlug, a "community interest company" that provides individuals with backpacks, gym bags, laptop bags and luggage as a means of providing the same to young people in care for free.
Packing up personal possessions can be a traumatic experience at the best of times, but the prospect of having to do so with only black plastic bags to act as luggage for many is simply unthinkable. Yet that is, in fact, the reality for hundreds of young people currently subsisting within the UK care system, an unfortunate, evidently overlooked norm that has been the case for years if not decades.
But thanks to Dave's enterprising idea children in care need never feel that they, or their prized possessions, have little value.
Dave, who has been married for 16 years to Judith and has two daughters, Melanie (11) and Maya (9), has developed a "one for one" model, on which the business is based, to ensure that for every branded Madlug product purchased by a member of the public, another unbranded bag is donated to an individual most in need, with no stigma attached. This approach enables those in care to transfer personal possessions with confidence as their journey towards adulthood continues.
Each backpack costs £28.99 and is available in a variety of vibrant modern colours, with other items in the range including holdalls (£39.99), cabin suitcases (£74.99) and laptop bags (£34.99).
He was inspired to create Mudlug after an experience at an introduction course to fostering in the spring of 2014.
Dave says: "While I was attending the course, I was shown a video interview with a young girl in a wheelchair who said, 'Health Trusts don't provide suitcases. Sometimes foster carers loan us a suitcase but more often our belongings are moved in black plastic bin bags and we lose our dignity'.
"This statement really stuck with me," he adds. "And for the remainder of the evening I thought of nothing else but the fact that these children's belongings are being transferred in bin bags. I was moved immediately to think of ways in which I could help these vulnerable youngsters.
"As I began to research and consider many possible solutions, I was continually drawn to the value and worth of children in care and the fact that they deserve to make their way through life with dignity. I was also drawn to the fact that the widespread use of bin bags to move the belongings of children and young people in care is a global issue. It was at this point that Madlug (Making a Difference Luggage) was, essentially, born."
With just £480 of funding, he began the search for affordable, durable products that would fit the Madlug bill.
Dave quickly sourced a range of bags through a UK manufacturer, ethically produced in China, and the concept began to take form.
"I expected the growth to be slow," he says. "But I have been totally amazed at how quickly it has taken off. I knew that the Madlug story would connect with people, and hoped that the business model would prove sustainable, but I wasn't expecting the media recognition to come so quickly."
Earlier this year, Nesta - an independent charity that works to increase the innovation capacity of the UK - selected Madlug from a longlist of thousands as a New Radical 2016 for innovation and social impact. The idea has fast caught on all around the world, with customers posting pictures of their Madlug bags online from the Gold Coast in Australia, the Grand Canyon, Brooklyn Bridge and Rio.
While the demand from the public is growing, the need to provide bags to those in care is also on the rise. Dave says that approximately 9,000 children are registered in care within the UK, with one child entering the system every 20 minutes.
"Children in care often have to deal with issues of low self-esteem, low self-confidence and low expectations, alongside having to fight against negative stereotypes and avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure," says Dave. "This is hard for anyone, never mind a young person who is in a vulnerable place.
"The complexities and demands placed on health trusts, social workers, foster carers and agencies who work with these amazing children is often challenging. Everyone agrees no child should have to carry their life in a bin bag, but despite policies being in place, many still do."
Dave is quick to praise those professionals who work to make the UK care system what it is, but believes that education is essential to stopping the problem from within. "In my opinion, there is always room for improvement," he says.
"Shortly after I started Madlug, I received a message from a social worker who thanked us for what we were doing and asked how to get hold of our bags. They said that they had never noticed the bin bag issue before, but since reading about Madlug they had seen it evidenced a number of times.
"If you allow a child to eat a sweet from the ground, they will see no problem with it and do so again. In the same way, social workers and foster carers have come to see black bin bags as the norm. Madlug is helping to change that perspective."
Dave, a former foster carer, has dedicated his life to helping those less fortunate. His dyslexia saw him leave school with few qualifications, but, undeterred, he went on to achieve the equivalent of an NVQ Level III in youth work through the JTP Programme and subsequently volunteered with charitable organisations in Canada, Germany and England.
He hopes one day to foster again after the "extremely positive" experience of helping to raise a foster child who has since gone on to graduate from university.
"She is now 21 and still comes to visit along with her own two beautiful children. It has been a great thing for our girls," he says. "Recently I found an Adoption Today magazine on our bed and I asked my daughters who had been reading it. My youngest said she had, because she is interested and wants to foster and adopt when she gets older. That's just wonderful to hear, for myself and for Judith."
A committed Christian, he cites James 1:27 as a particular inspiration and describes himself (when pressed) as "socially conscious, people-focused, strategic and creative". Madlug has enabled him to speak in schools across Northern Ireland and pass on his message of hope and empathy. But the greatest reward has come from foster carers and care leavers who have contacted him to express their gratitude.
"Our current foster child arrived with us two weeks before Christmas," one message read, "and all of her belongings were packed in black bags - the contents of her bedroom floor, half eaten food and dirty clothes. We are unsure how long she will be with us, and it would be lovely to give her one of your bags when she moves on."
Another read: "I love the philosophy behind your company. I'm a care leaver and I will never forget being told that when I moved to my first placement 18 years ago, that I had to bring all my stuff in black bags. It's so encouraging to see a company who have a focus on looking after children."
Dave says: "Each child and young person has experienced loss and the trauma of being removed from their families, often without fully understanding the reasons. This often leads them to feeling that they are at fault and the reason for being in care.
"They have files created on them, many social workers getting involved and then moving on, and as a result they are no longer receiving the childhood and youth experience that every child deserves.
"But every child has value and worth and should never lose the opportunity to experience a loving childhood as a result of an adult or situation out of their control.
"Our future plan for Madlug is to grow our sales reach across the UK, Ireland and beyond, which will then enable us to give out more bags across the whole of the UK and Ireland."
Aside from purchasing a Madlug bag, and in turn offering one to a child in care, the former foster carer is full of advice for those keen to help in other ways. He flags up organisations like Voice of Young People in Care, which does "stellar work" here, but relies on volunteer assistance and public donations to operate, and directs all concerned to the Madlug website for more relevant information.
Visit madlug.com for more information on the bags and organisations which work with young people