Young carers explore their creativity
Teenage years can be notoriously difficult to navigate but spare a thought for those who have to deal with the added responsibility of caring for a family member. Sheena Grant finds out about an innovative art project designed to help young carers.
Teenagers Jamielee Renn, Chantelle Smith and Tom Moore are chatting and giggling like any group of young friends as they sit down to eat a sandwich together.
They talk about the kinds of things all young people like to talk about - their hopes for the future, tastes in music and fashion and their studies at school and college.
But their friendship is also built on a shared experience that binds them together and fosters an understanding that’s hard for them to find elsewhere. All three are young adult carers, helping to look after family members with a variety of debilitating physical and mental health conditions.
Chantelle, 16, has been caring for her mum, who has bipolar, and helping out with her sisters since she was 11. She is at college and hopes to go into the military. A level student Jamielee, 17, cares for her younger brother, who has ADHD and learning problems, a sister with Retts syndrome, a genetic condition that causes a range of disabilities, and her father, who has schizophrenia and psychosis.
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“I’ve always lived with it, since I was little,” she says, with disarming simplicity.
Tom, 18, is at art college. He cares for his dad, who has diabetes, depression and anxiety. “I do chores, try to make sure he is all right and take some of the strain off him,” he says. “There’s a lot of emotional care involved - and dealing with how the illness affects the way he treats us. He was diagnosed when I was three and I suppose I’ve been helping out since I was six or seven.”
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All three say the things they have to deal with at home weigh heavy on their minds and can affect their ability to make friends and live what others would term a ‘normal life’.
“It can affect your own mental wellbeing,” says Jamielee, who has dreams of being an actor. “It’s always in your head, even if you’re not at home. No-one seems to realise how difficult it is. People who haven’t lived it can’t understand. Some think you’re exaggerating. They don’t realise how much of your life seems to get taken up with it. The people in our lives that we love the most, it is our job to look after them and it is hard for others to understand that.”
Chantelle agrees. “It’s quite hard to shut off,” she says. “That’s why it’s total comfort being around others who are in the same situation. Some-times, when you’re around other friends you can feel a bit different, like you don’t fit in as much.”
All three knew each other through Suffolk Family Carers, a charity providing information and support to carers across the county, but friendship bonds have been cemented further since they got involved with Exchanges 2, a three-month art project run by Suffolk Artlink in conjunction with Suffolk Family Carers and hosted by University Campus Suffolk (UCS).
Chantelle, Tom and Jamielee are among a group of 13 young adult carers taking part in Exchanges 2, working alongside two professional artists to explore their creative potential and create quality art work as part of a residency at UCS.
Colchester-based sculptors Lisa Temple-Cox and Natasha Carsberg were selected for the residency after an in-depth interview process involving eight of the young adult carers they are working with. Lisa uses elements of drawing, making, assemblage and installation to create work that questions notions of identity, often with a narrative quality. Natasha makes site-specific artworks and is stimulated by meeting new people and exploring new landscapes. The artists are working at the university’s Atrium Studios, in Ipswich, and meet up with the young adult carers each Monday evening, where they work together to develop ideas and create an installation that will be exhibited at the end of the residency. They are also working with a dance student, whose choreography will form part of the final exhibition.
This is Exchanges’ second year. Jenny Holland, Suffolk Artlink’s project development officer, hopes that like the first event it will help those taking part develop their creativity, grow as people, feel good about themselves and tackle underlying fears holding them back. Participants also get the chance to go on a cultural visit for research purposes and some can even develop their radio programme making skills with BBC Radio Suffolk.
Tom is a veteran of the inaugural project and enjoyed it so much he was keen to come back for year’s event. “As I study art it’s a great opportunity to work with professionals,” he says.
But the project isn’t just for those with artistic expertise. Quite the opposite.
“It’s a new experience for me,” says Chantelle. “We’ve been given freedom to try out different techniques and explore our creativity. It’s given us a chance to get to know each other and the artists really well.”
“I’ve got such a lot out of it,” says Jamielee. “It’s been a chance to go out and do something interesting.”
Over the last few weeks they’ve worked with the artists to make casts of their hands and faces as their ideas for the final exhibition have taken shape.
“The final piece is going to be something personal to all of us,” says Chantelle. “It will involve boxes holding our memories. Doing this is great. It makes you feel you are like everyone else.”
Then, sandwiches eaten, the teens are off to the studio. There’s much laughter coming from the room as they wrap parts of themselves in cling film in preparation for tonight’s casting session. At least for a few minutes, perhaps, they are able to forget their responsi-bilities.
It’s been a technically ambitious but inspiring project that will result in a thought-provoking and poignant piece of work, says Jenny. “Everyone is assembling their own work for display in a box,” she says. “They will all be different but part of a whole.
“It is a really moving process to see the young people growing and the collaboration working for everyone involved. There have been challenges and sometimes it’s not easy for all the young carers to have independence and the skills that go with that. But the commitment shown has been impressive. It is difficult when you are young and have to face things other children are potentially protected from but it can also give you things. It is how you deal with that experience, how you are able to cope and your resilience. We can help that process of inner resourcefulness.”
n Exchanges 2 ends in a public finale on March 31 at the UCS Waterfront Foyer from 4pm. For details contact email@example.com 01986 873955