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Element – Supporting care leavers into independent living

Having met while on the Year Here programme – a postgraduate course in social innovation – Alex Sayers and Elo Acland set up Element, which works with care leavers moving into independent living. We caught up with them to find out more about their work and what inspired them to set up the social venture.

What was the inspiration behind Element? 

Elo: Both of us have worked with young people before, then during Year Here I was placed in a care leavers’ service in Surrey and Alex worked at a pupil referral unit in Camden with a high proportion of looked after children.

Alex: We saw that outcomes for people in care are often worse than their peers and our experience of working with those young people made us passionate about trying to change those outcomes.

What are some of the biggest issues facing care leavers and how does Element aim to try and help young people to approach these problems? 

Elo: Moving out on your own and the amount of support you get as a care leaver compared to a child in care is much less. One of the care leavers in Surrey was just saying that the support drops at the point where you’re becoming an adult and you’re meant to get a job or continue your education and find a flat, all completely off your own back. There’s just so much to think about. She was saying that for a normal 18 year old it’s a really fun time of your life but for a care leaver it’s the opposite.

Alex: For care leavers the stigma that comes with that label and what people expect – because people often have lower expectations for you – that just confirms all those issues with confidence. People just think things about you automatically because of that and that’s obviously not helpful when it comes to self-esteem.

We found that a lot of support for care leavers moving into independence is based around practical skills or training for employment. But what often happens is that young people get onto the course, get employment or training and then after a couple of weeks will drop out because of the underlying emotional instability that hasn’t ever been addressed. So we wanted to focus on that foundation, which is why Element is centred on emotional wellbeing support.

Elo: It seems like emotional wellbeing support comes up over and over again as an area that needs attention. In Element we are trying to work with young people who are moving into independent living specifically, because that is often a time when those issues come to the forefront if you’re living alone and don’t know that many people in your local area. Things like depression can start in situations where it was a low level problem with emotional instability, we want to try and intervene before it becomes a more serious problem.

Element aims to help care leavers through a three-stage programme in personal development and emotional wellbeing for care leavers moving into independent living. Firstly there’s the workshop stage; a series of workshops around creatively expressing yourself to build a positive sense of identity and confidence, and to understand your emotions through art, poetry and drama. We do that with a group of care leavers that live fairly locally to one another. The idea is that that group will go on to become its own local support network – another stage of the programme – and be able to support itself. The other element is one on one support around spending your ‘leaving care’ grant, which is a grant care leavers get to furnish their flat.

What encouraged you to work with care leavers? 

Elo: Working at the care leavers’ service was 100% the thing that made me want to work with care leavers and young people in care – I didn’t know much about the care system before that and then I learnt a huge amount. I worked with a young woman who I got to know pretty well and we had a pretty good relationship. I thought we were quite similar. But while I felt like my whole life I’ve been nurtured up to a point where I feel like I can do whatever I want, she had none of those feelings, even though we shared a lot of qualities. When we were thinking about Element she was in my head a lot of the time.

Alex: I definitely think Year Here made me much more aware of young people with care experience and the whole care system in its entirety. When I was at the pupil referral unit I did a project and realized that so many of the students had such low self-esteem and had real problems expressing themselves, which I felt came from a place of under-confidence.

What differentiates Element from other organisations that aim to help care leavers? 

Elo: The programme is still growing and changing, but I think there are several things that are quite different. The focus on emotional wellbeing through creative expression, the support network aspect of it – we really want to facilitate a group that can support each other through the workshops. Also the spending of the leaving care grant, because that’s a local authority process that other organisations don’t normally try and take on.

What have you found to be the most challenging aspects of setting up a social venture? 

Elo: It’s definitely challenging – Element is in essence a service that we’re offering to local authorities. We’ve been lucky in that Richmond and Kingston’s children’s services where we piloted the programme are quite a new trust and are interested in trying new things.

Where do you see Element in the future? 

Alex: The great thing about Element is that we get to work with such amazing young people. So the ideal situation would be to get partnerships with more local authorities, because that would allow us to reach as many of these young people as possible.

Visit their website to find out more about the work Element are doing with care leavers.

Year Here is a postgraduate course in social innovation – with applications open now. Their alumni have set up 18 social ventures, including Element. Apply by 31st October.