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Northern Ireland woman grew up in care and founded charity but was still stunned at MBE

‘I’m grateful to the people who said I’d amount to nothing... they made me more determined to achieve in life’

Mum-of-one Jacqueline Williamson, from Londonderry, thought there had been a mistake when she received a letter saying she was to be awarded an MBE from the Queen. Here, she tells Leona O’Neill how growing up in care inspired the charity she founded

A Londonderry woman who was brought up in care, slept rough on the streets, became a teenage mother and lost her sister to alcohol abuse says people who told her she would never amount to anything in life only added fuel to her desire to succeed.

Today, 42-year-old Jacqueline Williamson is CEO of Kinship Care, a charity that supports children who cannot be cared for by their own parents to live safely and securely within their own families and communities.

She has been named in the New Year’s Honours list, being given the nod for an MBE in recognition of her work in keeping families together.

Jacqueline, who is originally from Fivemiletown but has made Derry her home, will visit London later this year to be handed her accolade by the Queen, marking the pinnacle of a remarkable journey from sleeping rough on the streets of Derry to visiting the corridors of Buckingham Palace.

“When I was three, my mother was not in a position to look after me and my sister” she says. “We were cared for for a while by my grandmother, but she was diagnosed with lung cancer and died.

“My sister, who was four, and I were taken to a children’s home in Fivemiletown.

“From there we moved from one children’s home to the next for all our young lives. I attended 13 different schools and I spent 14 years in care. That type of environment was all I ever knew.

“I neither liked nor disliked it. I had a good experience of care. I was well fed and well looked after. If I was to compare that to living with my mother, I would have much preferred the care system.

“At the age of 17, I left care. I had no support, but I was given a bedsit. I had always lived in a place with 30 other children in an environment of chaos. I just couldn’t make it on my own. I ended up on the streets, sleeping rough. There were other care-leavers on the street with me. That’s how it was then.

“Sometimes I look back and think about growing up in the care system and pinch myself because I have come so far from that point.

“I had my own son when I was 17. John-Paul came along at a very difficult time in my life but, being as resilient as I was at that time, I did it.

“It wasn’t easy, but he is 25 now, has his degree behind him, is a working man and is doing really well. A lot of him actually reminds me of me at that age. He has a steadfast determination to do well.”

As Jacqueline knows only too well, a lot of care-leavers do not make it in the outside world. Heartbreakingly, her beloved sister, consumed by her past, used alcohol as a crutch to cope. It eventually cost her her life.

“My sister, Karen, died in June 2012,” Jacqueline says. “She grew up alongside me in care, so we were with each other through thick and thin from very small children right up until I was about 12, when Karen was fostered out to good foster parents.

“She left me in the care system on my own and that was very difficult. It is one of those memories that is very traumatic for me. I didn’t have any family — I didn’t have anything of much — but I did have my sister.

“She did extremely well, did her degree, had a daughter and came back to Derry. But like most people who were brought up in care, she had great difficulty putting closure on what went before. She needed to know why people didn’t love her, why no one came to look after her, and she developed a problem with alcohol. She basically drank herself to death at 38.”

Jacqueline set up Kinship Care in 2010. She has been fighting the charity’s corner ever since, even walking 75 miles from Derry to Stormont to raise awareness of the huge amount of good work carers do.

“I was working for a homeless charity in the day, and in the evenings I was on my computer printing out letters on behalf of carers who were being denied financial support for children they were caring for,” she says.

“There were people I was dealing with who couldn’t even feed themselves, never mind the children they were caring for. But when I met the children, I realised that the youngsters were thriving, they were doing well at school, they were well settled and they had hopes and dreams for the future.

“I felt the State owed them something in terms of recognition and some support to keep that arrangement going.

“There was a few things that sparked the Kinship Care charity. I became a kinship carer myself and looked after my sister’s daughter. I found it a very rewarding yet very challenging experience. I found the level of support for kinship carers was non-existent. In addition to that, not having a family while having a son, and recognising the value and importance that family reinforces, hit home.

“Half of all children in looked-after arrangements live with kin. In Northern Ireland, there are between 10,000 and 12,000 children living in kinship arrangements, which is four times more than the number living in foster and residential care combined. Still, there is no investment in kinship care, and that is very disappointing.

“I set up Kinship Care based upon the mantra ‘keeping families together’, and that is exactly what we do. We developed a whole host of services funded by the Big Lottery Fund and we haven’t looked back since.

“Within our services are the most amazing resilient families you will ever meet. Our oldest grandparent is 74-years-old, raising her six-year-old grandchild. Our youngest kinship carer is 19, raising her eight, 11 and 14-year-old siblings, so we have youngsters who have experienced the death of a parent.

“We have other carers who are looking after children because of domestic violence situations, mental health issues, imprisonment of a parent or drug and alcohol issues.

“Our job is to build their confidence and self-esteem and get them to a place where they can stand on their own two feet. We encourage them not to take no for an answer and realise that anything is possible.”

Despite all her hard work, when Jacqueline heard she was on the New Year’s Honours list, she thought there had been an error. “I got a letter from the Cabinet Office one morning out of the blue,” she recalls. “I thought they had made a mistake. I rang them to ask them if they had made a mistake. They said they hadn’t, so I was delighted and I accepted the MBE.

“I remember when I was in care and, even after I was out, I was often told that I wouldn’t ever amount to much and that I was going to end up like my mother.

“To come from a situation where I left care at the age of 17 with no support, sleeping rough on the streets, to being on the phone to the Cabinet Office and being told they haven’t made a mistake and that I’m really getting an MBE is a remarkable journey.

“I think every child that grows up in the care system should aspire to achieving the exact same. The State should be actively encouraging them and putting every opportunity their way so all care leavers can receive MBEs or whatever accolade they want.

“I am proud of myself. I feel a great gratitude to people that I have met along the way. Some of the people I have met at the worst times of my life.

“I also have a lot of gratitude, to some extent, to the people who put me down and told me I wouldn’t do anything with my life. Those are the people who have made me more determined to achieve.

“I can put my hand up with my MBE and say ‘I made it’, which is absolutely fantastic.”

For more information on Kinship Care and the work Jacqueline and her team do,visit kinshipcareni.com

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