Ceremony honours achievements of ‘exceptional’ North Yorkshire care leavers

The resilience and strength of care leavers was honoured at an awards ceremony as they prepare to venture into adulthood.

Held at the University of York, the care leavers event, which was first held in 2017, returned since the Covid-19 pandemic.

More than 70 young people were joined by officers from North Yorkshire Council’s children and young people’s service and members of the county’s business community to celebrate the care leavers’ success, but also speak about the barriers they face and share ideas and their experiences.

The event came ahead of National Care Leavers Week, a nationwide initiative aimed at celebrating care leavers, amplifying their voices, raising awareness of their challenges and encouraging policy and practice change. This year, the week-long campaign runs to November 1.

North Yorkshire Council’s executive member for children and families, Cllr Janet Sanderson, said: “Looking after children is one of the most important things our council does and we must always strive to give our children and young people the care, support and opportunities they deserve, as well as having ambitions for them.

“The leavers event is our way of saying ‘well done’ to young people who have left, or who are due to leave care. We are proud of you and, most importantly, you should be proud of yourself for making this transition from being in care to starting your journey towards adulthood.”

Among the speakers who attended the event was former North Yorkshire Council care leaver Shaun Walmsley, 23, who shared his positive experiences of living on his own and his ambitions for the future.

He said: “Upon leaving the North Yorkshire care system aged 18, I attended Leeds Beckett University to study criminology, graduating with a 2:2.

“I wanted to give back to the authority that had supported me, so I joined the council as an apprentice in the restorative practice unit, which was one of the best and most exciting jobs I ever had. However, due to personal reasons, a few months later I decided to stand down from the role.

“I knew my heart was always set on pursuing a career connected to my degree and I am now working transporting prisoners between prisons, courts and police stations – a great job with plenty of opportunity for growth and success.”

He added: “My advice to all the young people leaving the care system is work hard for what you want, don’t let past experiences hinder your success as once I stopped letting my past define me that’s when I truly began to live.”

North Yorkshire Council’s corporate director, children and young people’s service, Stuart Carlton, said: “Our young people are truly exceptional and I was delighted to be part of this uplifting event to celebrate their achievements and give them the send-off they truly deserve.

“They are a credit to themselves and the whole community of North Yorkshire. Many of them have faced challenges and hardships in their lives and they still manage to excel and shine.

“We are extremely proud of them, and I would like to wish all the care leavers of 2023 the very best for the future.”

Awards were presented during the event, recognising the achievements of the young people and honouring staff who have championed their causes.

During the poignant event, hand-made quilts by volunteers from Quilts for Care Leavers were presented to the young people. Designed to be wrapped around their shoulders – like a quilted hug – Quilts for Care Leavers was first started by Maggie Lloyd-Jones in Leeds in 2018, following a 30-year career as a solicitor in the field of child protection and safeguarding.

She conceptualised the idea of creating and gifting quilts to young people leaving care at age 18 under the auspices of the Lemn Sissay Foundation.

Mrs Lloyd-Jones said: “I was inspired by poet Lemn Sissay OBE who spent his youth in care. I heard him say that on being transferred from long-term foster care to residential care, all he wanted was a hug.

“Our quilters are based all over the country and each quilt carries a label with a positive message such as ‘remember you are amazing’ or ‘remember you are strong’.

“We want the care leavers to know that there is someone out there who has made this quilt especially for them. Very rarely does a young person decide not to choose a hug, but that is them exercising their choice.”