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.
“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.”