How the Topè Project is transforming Christmas Day

15th December 2014
It’s not the first answer you expect when you ask a social worker what they’re up to over the festive season. Giving the demanding caseloads and the emotional nature of the job, Natasha Adley could be forgiven for putting her feet up with a glass of sherry in front of the Queen’s Christmas speech.

But this Christmas, just as she has for the past two years, Natasha will be spending the day with 80 care leavers who do not have the comforts of close family at this time of year. Natasha is supporting The Topè Project, named after 23 year-old care leaver Topè, who took his own life in 2010. Topè spent his working life dedicated to supporting young people from similar backgrounds to his own, and in his memory his friends set out on a mission to support care leavers who were suffering from loneliness.

“Ruth Stivey, one of the organisers, told me about the Topè Project because she knew I was really passionate about working with young people, particularly around the transition to leaving care and their emotional support” says Natasha, who wrote her dissertation on this very topic before qualifying as a social worker last year.

“That was [ahead of] the very first Christmas event, and I’ve been involved ever since. A lot of people feel isolated at Christmas, but research shows that isolation and loneliness are key challenges for care leavers,” she said.

Natasha describes the event as having a ‘family feel’ with a ‘very supportive, inclusive, fun and informal’ environment. “There’s games and craft activities throughout the day. Last year they did presents, a disco and a huge Christmas meal which included all the traditional English food plus all types of other cultural food.”

The Topè Project, which relies on donations via its Christmas appeal, has been such a success that the idea has been replicated around the country. Esteemed poet Lemn Sissay is supporting two Christmas Dinners, one in Hackney which will host 70 care leavers and one in Manchester which will host 40. Meanwhile Who Cares Trust Scotland are hosting an event in Glasgow for 50 people. The Topè Project are encouraging other groups to put on similar Christmas events and have even created an advice pack to share best practice.

Topè Project Founder Shalyce Lawrence recently accepted an award for the group’s work, which on Christmas Day involves logistical nightmares such as transporting dozens of care leavers around London without the help of public transport.

“Topè did amazing work with young care leavers, I’m sure he would be blown away by what’s been created. Out of loss, we have given joy and happiness,” she said of her close friend.
Meanwhile, 18 year-old aspiring policeman, Ondre Oliver Franklin, attended last year’s event. “It was a positive day – everyone was smiling and enjoying themselves. I don’t get on with my family so there aren’t many people to talk to normally,” he said.
Statistics are very clear in showing the disadvantages faced by children in care. They are four times less likely to get five A*-C GCSEs and twice as likely to not be in education, employment or training. But one element that often gets neglected is the emotional strain of leaving care at 18 without family.

“There’s a focus on practical things such as accommodation, college or training,” says Natasha, “but on times like Christmas Day you need some support network around you. It’s important to have something that can bring people to together… and something to look forward to now and in future years, rather than a time of year that’s a real challenge.”

The Topè Project is raising money via its Just Giving page. Donations are very welcome. You can receive a pack explaining how to replicate the group’s success by emailing them here.