This week it’s Barnardo's Fostering & Adoption Week, and the theme this year is aimed at young people in care. As a specialist recruiter of foster carers, I am pleased to see fostering agencies bring more focus to older children because they need love just as much as younger children, and yet far fewer people apply to be assessed to foster this age group.
I am also a care leaver, although now 41 years old. After four fostering placements, and two stays in a children’s home, I finally settled in my last foster home, at the age of 13 - a young teenager. This was in Nottingham, back in 1988, and although twenty-seven years have flown by since then, I remember some very good advice I was given by my foster dad at that time, and which has influenced me in later life.
Apart from day to day living, finally in a home, and family, that claimed me as one of their own, my foster dad became the only adult male figure in my life to take an interest in me as a young man. From sitting me down to talk through my ‘options’, that is, which GCSE subjects I was to choose for the next two years, to talking to me about working, pensions and buying a house, Graham was a constant but gentle mentor for me.
There was confusion in those days about what opportunities were available to children on the edge of care, and certainly, I don’t recall ever being aware that a university education was open to me, so it isn’t something I pursued. Instead, I dropped out of my A’ levels halfway through and wanted to earn money instead. I was supported by my foster family the best way they could, but they too experienced some confusion around the process of me leaving care and what was available to me.
Amidst this frightening period in my life, when I sensed on some level that it was time to stand on my own two feet, I set out, at 17 years old, to get a job. There are a number of instructive pieces of advice that I remember my foster dad passing on to me that gave me motivation at the time when I needed it, and melted into my own personal philosophy as the years went by and I became a properly self-supporting adult.
Emotionally floundering as I was as I embarked upon my entry into the world of work, Graham’s words gave me some structure to have faith in. Here’s one which has stayed with me from then to now, and which I find myself passing on to the younger generation today: ‘Sean, if you’re out of work and looking for a job, then make looking for work your job. Go out at nine, take a lunch break and don’t come home till five.’
Now, it has to be said that Graham was a large man, with an authoritative tone, who commanded respect from everyone who met him, even grown ups. So, this suggestion was given to me in rather the same way as it is ‘suggested’ that one pulls a ripcord when leaping out of an airplane with a parachute. So, my foster dad’s advice were really gently given orders, but nonetheless, I followed it, and it wasn’t long before I got a job - less than a week in fact.
When it came to job interviews, my foster dad was similarly matter of fact: ‘if in doubt, always dress smartly. You’ll never offend anyone by arriving dressed smartly.’ I can reliably inform readers of this blog post that I have never failed a job interview because of being poorly dressed. You can be sure that my shoes gleamed, my fingernails were trim (yes, they were examined during an interview to be a waiter at John Lewis!), and my school tie had been swapped for one of Graham’s. I got the John Lewis job, by the way, although whether or not I enjoyed it much is another matter!
My foster parents charged me to live at home after I’d left school. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t save up as I went, but it wasn’t so little that I’d stay there forever, either. I didn’t mind because I knew that they were both preparing me for independence, although in those days we didn’t use such words. There was only one time that my foster mum lent me money, a small amount, and it came with a strict deadline. What felt so mean back then makes me smile now because the principle of only spending what I have in my pocket was imprinted in me, and positively influences my relationship with money today.
I’ll finish on one last, thoughtful piece of advice that Graham imparted to me: ‘Sean, if you can do something really well then what’s the difference between someone employing you to do it, or being paid commission to do it? Think about it, commission removes the ceiling on your earnings. Then only your self belief is what limits your potential.’
Big stuff for a teenager to understand! Still, I grasped my foster dad’s point although it took some years of life experience to build my self-belief to the point that it overcame my dependence upon the ‘stability’ of a job. Many people never achieve this, but last year, after a fourth annual successive threat of redundancy at a local authority where I worked as foster carer recruitment and marketing manager, I threw in the towel without a job to go to, and set up as a self employed foster carer recruitment specialist.
Whether by luck, judgment, or something else I may never know, but I was soon hired by an independent fostering provider to help them with their own foster carer attraction and recruitment strategy, and all of the advice from my foster dad years before was borne out completely.
The day I resigned from the council to offer my recruitment expertise on a wider scale was a day I’ll never forget. I felt carried, even though all that lay ahead was uncertainty. I feel sure that my foster dad was with me that day. He had sadly passed away years before, in 2002, when I had been asked by my foster mum to give a reading at his funeral. But he lives on, inside of me, and when life throws something unexpected at me, he’s still there, throwing me those helpful ‘suggestions’!