Lemn Sissay & Sheena Wilkinson visit Northern Ireland for Foster Care Fortnight

Published on: 28 May 2014 Author: Liz Canning

'You are all super heroes!' That is what a group of young people in care were told by Lemn Sissay and Sheena Wilkinson as they embarked on two days of poetry and prose workshops.                           

Lemn Sissay & Sheena Wilkinson

The names of fostered or adopted literary heroes; Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Harry Potter and many others, was an inspiring way for the young people to begin to see creativity and words as a powerful and positive way of telling their story and expressing feelings.

This BookTrust NI and the Fostering Network NI project, funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland,is in line with current practice on developing emerging talent. The small group of care experienced youngsters worked intensively with the two established writers to develop their skills and confidence in writing. Each day, encouraged and supported by Lemn and Sheena, they told their stories, discussed their experiences and expressed their thoughts in poetry, pictures and prose.

Lemn Sissay, Patron of Letterbox Club said:

'I am a writer. My job is to inspire and be inspired. And I can't think of better people to work with than young people in care and care leavers. They inspire me. I inspire them. Quid pro quo. In care experienced children there is talent that needs and deserves specific attention. This is why I am proud to be a patron of The Letterbox Club. It gives specific attention to a specific need. It is as important for a care experienced child to read, and for their books to travel with them from one home to the next. On writing, and the workshops I gave in Northern Ireland, the first draft poems of the care experienced children are shining expressions of imagination and truth. These are two central pillars of poetry, two needs of creativity and two ingredients to a better life.'

At the end of two days of lively discussion, fun, laughter, and often difficult reflections the young people had produced written work of a very personal nature which they were justifiably proud of. It was heartwarming to see the group increase in confidence and self- esteem as they realised that writing is not just for exams, but also to give them a voice.

One child involved said:

'Sheena is really nice and helpful. We had to draw a picture of our bedroom using our wrong hand and then describe it.'

An important aim of the project is that the young people begin to see that their family, culture and view of the world are rich, interesting and important. Lemn and Sheena both shared their stories; Lemn as an adopted and then fostered child and Sheena as a foster aunt for many years.

Another child who attended said:

'Lemn is a happy and jolly person, but he did share his life story with us and it made us realise that we weren't the only ones who weren't with our family. He was good fun.'

This project pilots ongoing support for young people who have experienced Letterbox Club which gifts book parcels to fostered children age 5 - 13, and which has been shown to inspire a love of reading and increase educational attainment. In Northern Ireland, BookTrust works in partnership with the Fostering Network to deliver Letterbox parcels to all fostered and adopted children. Fostering Network staff identified young people with a particular interest in developing their skills in poetry and creative writing and invited them to be part of this exciting opportunity.

Northern Ireland teen author Sheena Wilkinson said:

'I've worked with all kinds of people in all kinds of places but the writing workshops I helped to facilitate for looked-after children with BookTrust were a real highlight for me. My sister is a long-term foster carer which has given me a particular interest in young people in care. This group of young people impressed me with their honesty, their willingness to try something new and their generosity in sharing their work with us and the group.

Having two days together was magical: you could really see the young people develop in confidence. Working with Lemn was great fun; writers can learn so much from each other and from the people they work with. Ever since I became aware of the work that Book Trust does in association with the Fostering Network, I've been keen to be involved. I know everyone got a lot out of the experience and I hope that other young people in care will be able to take part in such projects in the future. I'm definitely up for it!'

The ambition is that BookTrust and the Fostering Network will continue to work with this group, signpost them to other opportunities and explore using the participants as an editorial board to encourage and publish similar work by care-experienced young people.

Many thanks to Maria and Lorna who provided essential contact with the foster families and to Hazelwood Integrated College for hosting the workshops in the beautiful Graymount House. The hospitality was superb and we were well looked after, by all the staff but in particular, School Librarian Jackie Braun.

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