‘Im 24 and hosting 50 for Christmas dinner – like me theyve grown up in care

All of us who celebrate Christmas have our own ways of marking the day. Whether it's family traditions, watching a particular film or visiting certain people or places. OK! spoke to five people about their unique festivities. 

If you enjoy getting an insight into other people's December then make sure you come back tomorrow for more, and Merry Christmas! 

Growing up in foster care Whitney Clark, 24, from London, resented Christmas. Now she’s helping to bring others, like her, together. Here she tells her story…

“The TV adverts portray Christmas as a time to come together – but what happens when you have nowhere safe to go?

Growing up, it was a stressful, upsetting time of year for me because I was living in care. I resented Christmas and what it stands for.

Either I was in a home that wasn’t my own or seeing relatives, which could be a very toxic environment.

But today, I look forward to being part of a team of volunteers who host a Christmas Day gathering for around 50 young care leavers aged 18 to 25 and their children.

The event in Richmond, south-west London, offers fun and pampering, a traditional roast, gifts and a hamper to see them through the holiday.

It was the idea of a nurse called Sian Thomas who, while working in child protection, met lots of young people who’d spent time in care. The system means that once they reach 18, they’re expected to live independently, despite having childhood trauma and no support network. It’s hard to understand how tough that is if you haven’t experienced it.

I’ve gone through a lot – I was excluded from school, had to see off bailiffs looking for my mum and cared for my dying grandmother. My childhood geared me up for adulthood early.

After leaving care I was the loneliest I’d ever been and terrified of getting into debt, which is why I turned to crime and ended up in prison. When I got out, I vowed never to go back in.

On Christmas Eve 2016, Sian met a homeless man sat outside Burger King. She took him inside for a bite to eat and he told her how his parents had substance abuse issues and he’d spent his life moving from one care placement to another. He was 22 and alone for Christmas, just like so many care leavers, through no fault of our own.

It spurred Sian to help and the following year, she put together a team of 20 volunteers who set about raising money and inviting care leavers to join them.

We even ran in lockdown

That first year attracted 40 guests – including me. I loved it so much that I became a volunteer too. There’s an army of us now, fundraising and collecting donations of food and gift wrap, and helping at the Christmas Day event.

Guests arrive by taxi around 11am and we have crafting tables waiting for them, plus hairdressers and manicurists to pamper them ahead of a sit down, alcohol-free lunch at 2pm. The afternoon includes games, a movie room and silent disco, before they head home at 6pm with a bag of personalised presents and a hamper of essentials.

We even kept it running during the 2020 lockdown, with volunteers dropping off care parcels and gifts to their front doors.

Sian has since founded a charity called Cocoon to support care leavers whenever they need it. A man who got funding to train as a chef will be cooking the Christmas lunch this year.

I’m proud to be a trustee of Cocoon, alongside my jobs as a youth worker and NHS peer support worker in mental health, plus studying for a personal training diploma. I see kids who are anxious about things they shouldn’t have to worry about, like the cost of school uniforms and getting sanitary products. I’m trying to break that cycle for them.

When I first saw this year’s John Lewis Christmas advert about a child going to stay with a foster family, I cried. I’m so glad they’re highlighting these issues.

Christmas has a whole new meaning now. To be with others who’ve gone through similar experiences really resonates. You feel like you belong and are somebody.”

Sian Thomas, the founder of Richmond Christmas Day Dinner for care leavers, says: “We work hard to make the day enjoyable, but our guests are under no obligation to be happy. They can be resentful, cross, sad, whatever they want. We’re trying to create better memories. People tell me, ‘You’re giving up Christmas.’ But I’m not – I’m just doing Christmas in a different way.”

Find out more and donate at cocooncareaftercare.org.uk


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