The Young Carers organisation has long been a staple of fundraising telethons like Comic Relief. Alex Doherty recounts her positive experiences working with the Portsmouth branch.
Like millions of others, I grew up watching clips of children and young people living in dire conditions whilst they supported disabled parents or siblings, after which the camera would revert back to presenters imploring the audience to donate. Only ever seeing caring in these extreme contexts, I never identified with the subjects of these clips until I reached the breaking point of stress living with my disabled father and was referred to Portsmouth Young Carers Service.
Aged nineteen, I fell into the bracket of Young Adult Carers, a newer, smaller group covering nineteen to twenty-five year olds who cared for family members. Portsmouth is lucky to have this service – most groups elsewhere stop funding after carers turn eighteen, though there are estimated to be almost 400,000 carers nationwide aged sixteen to twenty-five. Initially, I didn’t think I qualified for membership of the group; I held down a job, was lucky enough to enjoy strong social ties and had a good education – nothing close to what I thought a Young Carer looked like.
But at the same time, I’d also missed out on a lot and been forced to deal with things that shouldn’t have been my responsibility. So, with nowhere left to turn, one Thursday night at 6pm I pressed the buzzer on the door of Portsmouth Carers Centre on Orchard Road, Southsea and stepped inside.
Jake, one of the leaders, immediately made me feel welcome by handing me his guitar and asking me what kind of music I liked to play. He introduced me to the other members of the group, all a similar age. Jake was the perfect man for the job: funny, chilled out and, most importantly, caring. He enjoyed a risqué joke and let us play snake on his ancient, brick-like Nokia phone (a novelty to us Gen Zs). I’d never been to a youth group before, but this was what I’d imagined it might be like.
We were fortunate to have the use of three rooms including a kitchen, plus the bigger workroom with a television, Playstation and art supplies, though these facilities were mostly used by the younger and more populous Monday group. In these rooms for two years most Thursdays I jammed, laughed, created, debated and cried with my new friends. At the group we watched movies, we baked, we threw birthday parties for each other. It was consistency. Support. Catharsis, in a way. I let out all of the emotions I couldn’t release at home. I met people I never would have otherwise.
Some of the young people had been using the service since they were eight years old, attending the Saturday morning group before graduating to the Monday evening and then Thursday evening groups. They’d built up relationships with the staff that had known them the majority of their lives.
At the worst time of my life, Young Carers was a lifeline. Each week, Thursday couldn’t come around fast enough. Sometimes there were planned activities chosen by us, other times we had guest speakers in. The budget allowed a certain amount of Money that was ours to spend and we decided to blow it all on a weekend away where we played football, went swimming and splurged on silly string. Zurich Insurance generously sponsored us to go to Thorpe Park, funding travel, entry and lunch for everyone.
The people that supervised the group were a mix of paid staff and volunteers who gave up their evenings and time with their own families to help us create an unorthodox family of our own. Often it could be difficult to feel deserving of such kindness, but I learned the importance of accepting it.
When the stress got too much, Lucy, the manager, offered to meet one-on-one. We did so every week, either in a cafe or at the museum, and just talked. With her help, I finally began to believe that I was not at fault for the way my father behaved or in any way responsible for his feelings. I decided to consciously rewire my brain. I dissected the behaviour my father had modelled, insistent that it would never be me. It meant second-guessing every choice I made and controlling my reactions.
Lucy facilitated this, offering alternate perspectives and occasionally playing devil’s advocate. She allowed me to come to my own conclusions to give me the skills for life, rather than telling me what to do. She would help with job applications and researched university courses with me. We naturally parted ways when I gained a place at the University of Portsmouth and was able to hold myself up emotionally.
I don’t know what I would have done without the support of Portsmouth Young Carers. I wish I’d known about it earlier, and although I don’t need it anymore, I’ll never underestimate what the staff and other carers did for me. As with most social and health services, the groups – especially the Young Adult Carers – are at risk of dissolution. Funding is sparse and paid staff numbers are reducing. The staff go above and beyond to support the vulnerable people using the service, giving children the chance to be children and guiding young adults to establish a life that’s all their own.
If you feel like you or someone you know could benefit from the service, Young Adult Carers runs from 6.15 to 8.15 pm every Thursday evening on Orchard Road. A group for fourteen to eighteen year olds runs at the centre on Mondays, and for younger children aged between eight and fourteen, a group meets at the John Pounds Centre in Portsea on Saturdays. For more information, call Portsmouth City Council on 02392821816.