This year’s much anticipated John Lewis Christmas advert centers on the Man on the moon, with the retailer partnering with Age UK to highlight loneliness among elderly people. Yet Christmas can be a difficult time for care leavers too, who may also experience loneliness and other mental health problems: children in care are 4 times more likely to have a mental health issue, and care leavers are between four and five times more likely to self-harm in adulthood. That’s where the volunteer-run Topé Project – which combats loneliness for care-experienced young people – comes in.
The project – named after Topé, a 23-year-old care leaver who tragically took his own life in 2010 – puts on a Christmas Day event in London for care-leavers each year. For Christmas 2015, attendees can look forward to “an amazing Christmas dinner with a Caribbean twist, fantastic volunteers to provide love and support, lots of games and activities, and maybe even a bouncy castle” Jerome Harvey-Agyei, one of the founders, tells me.
By creating an atmosphere of what fellow founder Shalyce Lawrence describes as “pure love”, the Topé Project hopes to give care leavers positive memories for the year ahead, with everyday experiences such as eating a meal with others or simply taking a taxi, treasured as special moments by the young people.
Now in its fourth year, the project is going from strength to strength – last year demand was so high they had to send 80 young people to another event in London. As Jerome explains, they are keen to grow the initiative. “We want people to take responsibility in their own areas and create their own Christmas vibes so that the government starts looking at it and saying we should fund this. Our hope is that eventually all boroughs provide Christmas events for their young people.”
They’ve already inspired similar gatherings up and down the country, including poet Lemn Sissay’s Christmas dinner appeal, which is hosting events in Manchester, Leeds and Hackney. With interest from as far afield as America, Shalyce says they’ve also begun to think of the project globally, and how they can share their ideas more widely to “impact the world.”
Currently in her final year of university, she hopes to take the project one step further by creating a network for young people with care experience. “That’s one thing that’s missing. The process of being in care means a lot of young people miss out on education and training amongst other things. If we can create a network which offers those young people mentors and opportunities in training and work, we can improve outcomes. That’s the future plan. Once I graduate, I’m going to spend time on how we can expand and make this into a yearly thing, whether it’s a group, network or social enterprise.”
The Public Accounts Committee’s recent report into care leavers’ transition to adulthood suggests further improvements are still needed in the support they receive. Unfortunately outcomes remain highly unfavourable in comparison to their peers – in 2013-14, 41% of 19-year-olds were not in education, employment or training, compared to 15% of all 19-year-olds. With around 10,000 16- to 18- year olds leaving care each year and the overall number of looked after children growing, the network Shalyce proposes would certainly be in high demand, as well as plugging a gap in the provision of support services for care leavers.
Whatever the future may hold for the Topé project, it’s clear it isn’t just for Christmas. “We planned an Eid event too, but this is bigger than an event, it’s a year-long thing. It’s about what else we can do throughout the year to help care leavers, whether it be training professionals how to emotionally connect within the professional environment, or looking at what young people need to do to be emotionally resilient” says Jerome. “It doesn’t just affect care leavers, it affects everyone. When we talk about mental health, there is always a time when people feel bad. The stigma around mental health needs to change.”
Their advice for others hoping to organize similar events? “Keep it personal, that’s how you get to engage and really get the most out of people. Another charity tried to do a similar thing with whole families, but it was too big” explains Jerome. Shalyce says “the best Christmas is love, that’s all I’ve ever wanted. The Topé Project has brought the best Christmases I’ve ever had, because with them, everyone is family.”
The Topé Project is raising money for their 2015 Christmas Day event. If you’d like to help them reach their £5,000 target for this year you can support them by making a donation through their JustGiving page.