“Happy Being Me” exhibition opens in Preston and gives young care leavers a voice

Ralph Rushworth helping to set the exhibition up at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery
Ralph Rushworth helping to set the exhibition up at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery

Lancashire's young care leavers provide an insight into the positive aspects of their lives as young adults in a new exhibition which focuses on what makes them happy, as Fiona Finch reports.

Happiness is not always quantifiable.

It is to be savoured, not captured.

But, as a new pop up exhibition at Preston’s Harris Museum and Art Gallery demonstrates, it is possible to share it.

Happy Being Me tells a story not often heard from young care leavers - what makes them happy.

The mini exhibition, which also has contributions from social workers and support staff in the county, has been set up to mark National Care Leavers’ Week.

Jane Hylton, Leaving Care Development Officer at the county council said: “It’s just something that takes you away from the day to day stuff. I think it’s really, really inspirational. Some of the art work contributed is so creative.”

Aaron Walmsley-Fishwick from Chorley now works as a Leaving Care Support Worker at Lancashire County Council. The 23 year old went into care when he was an older teenager and he has contributed a picture and photograph to the display. He said: “It’s all about expressing yourself and being happy. It’s really about empowering young people from across Lancashire...If you don't get reminded of what makes you happy you are going to fall down really fast.”

He said: “I was homeless for quite a long time before I was put into care. You don’t really have a town or identity...you’re a drifter.”

Now he has a place to call home and a garden and still has the support of a personal adviser. He explained: “You’re a care leaver but still supervised and looked after by the local authority until you are 25.”

His image shows a butterfly and is based on a photo he took after rescuing a butterfly from the water when he was out canoeing. He warmed the butterfly in his hands and it flew off and later returned to perch on his hand.

The butterfly reminds him of his late grandmother, who loved to see butterflies and had a beautiful garden. He said: "I'm not an artist whatsoever, but my picture is just around things get really bad and can get really tough, but I believe if searching for happiness you can find it."

There are currently 1,247 care leavers in Lancashire who will have left children's homes or foster placements.

Part of Aaron's role is to develop opportunities for young people and he sees Care Leavers Week as a great opportunity for lots of young care leavers to get involved in events, have their voice heard and make sure there is authentic dialogue between decision makers and those who have experienced what it is like leaving care.

Ralph Rushworth, 19, from Heysham is a county council apprentice dividing his time between the children’s and social care leaving care service and business support.

He was in care and appreciates the opportunity to use his experiences to help improve the care leavers’ service by sharing his knowledge with other staff.

He said: “It’s important for care leavers to be proud of their identity as care leavers. I think a lot of us do struggle with it because there are a lot of stereotypes around care...a lot of people think kids from care will go straight into jail. That’s not fair...It’s important for me to speak about the things I wasn’t happy about and make it better for the next care leavers.”

His contribution to the exhibition is a poster with the numbers 21 over 90. He explained: “It takes 21 days to make or break a habit and 90 days to build a life style. The best way to be proud of yourself is to have lots of small achievable goals up to one target.. I did mine on a canvas. At first it didn’t work...then I realised even speaking is an art. Art is a way people express themselves.”

Simultaneously a new 62 page book entitled Sincerely You has been published drawing together a selection of letters written by county care leavers to their younger selves. These letters featured in an exhibition at the Harris and other venues two years ago.Now the printed collection will be used to help train social workers and support care leavers.

Roxanne McAllister, Team Manager for the Central Lancashire Leaving Care service said: ”Actually young people are really energetic and engaged in all sorts of issues ... There’s a lot of talk about older adults being isolated and lonely in their communities and we’re mindful of that, but a lot of young people are lonely and isolated in their communities and do not have family close by.”Roxanne said: “The challenges are isolation and loneliness, having to deal with adult things before their peers uch as paying their own bills and the long term implications of not managing your finances in terms of your credit rating.”.

She points out other young adults may move out of the family home and go and live on their own, but if it doesn’t work out they can return. That safety net is not available to care leavers.

“Children are looked after by the care system because it’s not safe for them to go home. It’s as simple as that really - it’s not about them being badly behaved or naughty.”

The exhibition will tour the county and Ralph said:"There are a lot of negative stereotypes. I think they (care leavers) are as cohort most resilient. Care leavers always bounce back. There's nothing care leavers can't overcome in a way.because you get through everything. Even if it changes two people's opinions or makes some kids in care feel more confident about their care (leavers) identity it's a success for me."

There are currently 2,136 children and young people in care in the county. One day they too will be care leavers - with the support of personal advisers. They can as this new exhibition testifies, become resilient, confident and be happy.

But it’s not just down to them .

Jane said: “We start to talk about corporate parenting but there’s a lot of work to say it’s not just about the local authority it’s about what communities could do in terms of offering apprenticeships, employment and training opportunities. It’s about having a wider awareness of care leavers in the community.They might have had a different experience of growing up.

Care leavers are normal young people not something other.”

*See more photos of care leavers’ art work at www.lep.co.uk The exhibition continues at the Harris until November 6 and is at Fleetwood Library from November 8 - 13, Lancaster Library November 15 - 20,The E Room, Skelmersdale November 22 - 27 November and The Whittaker, Rawtenstall, November 29 to December 4.