Maggie Powell is one of those unusual people who helped create a seismic change for good in the community to which she has dedicated her life, but would rather not receive any plaudits for having done so.
In her defence, she points out that the true founding father of what became Gloucestershire Young Carers was, in fact, her one-time colleague in Gloucestershire County Council, Mike Hatch.
Those who know the true story of the creation of the much-loved, life-changing charity might suggest Powell is modestly deflecting praise from where it is also due, although her point also stands – Gloucestershire Young Carers is the result of years of teamwork and the efforts of many.
Today, despite having officially retired from working life, Powell remains both connected and respected by the Gloucester-headquartered organisation, which in 2023 is celebrating 30 years of supporting young people, whose childhoods are dedicated to caring for family members.
Its aim is to give them respite from their roles as carers, to give them space to experience, if only occasionally, the kind of childhoods most of us take for granted, to help them realise they are not alone, and to believe they too can have lives of their own one day.
‘I was around in the very beginning. I was working for social services in the county and have a background as a social worker. I was inspired by a colleague who was leading on carers issues and young carers. This seemed like a new idea at the time,’ recalls Powell, who remains immensely proud of what Gloucestershire Young Carers does.
'I began to get more involved. He was
organising a multi-agency conference and bringing some young carer speakers
across from London. From there we managed to get some funding and create a
committee and a team to launch something in Gloucestershire.
‘Eventually this grew and moved outside the council and became a charity. I stepped down as a trustee in 2010, but I am still involved.’
Today, three decades on from those humble beginnings, Gloucestershire Young Carers has grown beyond any of those early expectations. As with so many charities, working with businesses and organisations is vital not only for financial support but to open up career opportunities for young carers.
Companies, like Mid-Counties Co-op, have been long-standing supporters and more recently the likes of Gloucestershire firm Optimising IT has been proudly flying the flag. But the charity is always looking for more support, of course.
Gloucestershire Young Carers set out to support what was thought to be a few young carers – but what it ended up doing was making apparent that battling away in silence were not a few, but hundreds.
‘When we started we knew about four young carers in the county, and thought there could be as many as 100. There were about 1,000 out there.
‘These are not young people who empty the
dishwasher or make tea for their parents on their birthdays. Their families
rely on them to function. We hugely underestimated it,’ said Powell.
‘It was an unrecognised issue. And it remains complicated for people to understand it. If you are caring for a parent, for your mum who is in a wheelchair, that might be acceptable to share with your peers.
‘When you are caring for someone with mental health problems, drug and alcohol addiction, you are still caring, but that is possibly something you may not want to share so readily. You do not ask for help.’
Society has ‘got better’ at understanding, she says, schools are now better at accommodating the young people, but it is a continual battle to educate all of us in a positive way, while also respecting right to privacy of those whose childhoods are not spent in play, in make believe, and dreams.
‘For so many people this is still hidden, something they don’t think about,’ said Powell, with typical understatement.
At the heart of Gloucestershire Young Carers is the drive to give its members a chance to be themselves, have a positive experience of childhood, away from the kinds of stresses many of us only face later in life with aging parents and relatives.
Powell has many stories which would bring
you to tears, but she tells them in the same understated manner, the only
emotion detectable is how in awe she remains of the young people she has met
along the way.
‘The guilt at wanting to go off to university, out of the area, to work or to study weighs on many of them, But many of the young people do manage that,’ she reflects.
When Helen Predgen-Lay, chief executive and founder of Gloucestershire Young Carers, died in 2010 a small bursary was set up in her memory which runs to this day to help young carers begin to make their way in the world for themselves, and the applications stick on my mind.
‘Many will ask for financial help. But it will be for train tickets to allow them to come home at weekends to continue to care.
‘One young man asked for help to buy a bicycle, so he could travel out of his area to work; one had started in construction and wanted only money for work boots.
‘Many of their qualities are hard to put onto a CV, but they are the sort of people you would think many in the business community would appreciate and you hope would recognise.
‘They are often people who grow up to know the real value of things, are incredibly organised, emotionally mature, get things done, listen to others and ask for so little in return.’