In the middle of National Carers Week, the spotlight falls on a Teesside charity supporting hundreds of young carers, like 15-year-old Jess Norcott, who is dedicated to looking after her disabled mother. PETER BARRON reports
WITH a maturity way beyond her tender years, Jess Norcott is talking about her hopes for the future. Her long-term ambition is to be a firefighter one day, but she has a more immediate aim: “I’m trying to find more time to be a child,” she says, softly.
At 15, Jess is an unsung hero – like millions of other young carers across the country, who deserve to be classed as key workers, yet whose herculean efforts so often go unnoticed.
Thankfully, that’s not the case at The Junction Foundation, a grass roots Teesside charity, which last year recognised the needs of young carers by supporting 819 individuals, some as young as five.
“That’s only the tip of the iceberg,” says Phil Dolphin, the charity’s Youth and Participation Lead. “We hope that by raising awareness, more young people will be recognized as being young carers and contact us for much needed and deserved support.”
The Junction Foundation – established by volunteers in Redcar 31 years ago – provides a range of support services across Teesside, for children, young people and their families.
Jess is just one of the hundreds of young carers to have come onto charity’s radar, and she’s telling her story at the Myplace Youth Centre, in the shadow of Middlesbrough’s Transporter Bridge, in an attempt to highlight the incalculable value young carers bring to society.
The eldest of three children – she has younger sisters, Hope, eight, and Lana, seven – Jess has been a young carer since she was ten. She primarily looks after her mother, Adele, who is disabled due to chronic back and hip problems, but Adele’s mother also lives with the family in the Pallister Park area of Middlesbrough, and also needs support.
Daily tasks for the youngster include cooking family meals, doing the laundry, cleaning, ironing, and helping Adele in and out of the shower.
“My Mam tries to be independent and doesn’t like to ask for help even though she needs it. She wants me to be a kid and do normal things. I’m trying hard to get out more but some days it can be so stressful with the pressures at home. Sometimes, I cry over the stupidest things because it all builds up,” Jess admits.
“I really don’t mind helping Mam and I want to be there for her. Due to her mobility problems, she struggles with lots of everyday things that all add up.”
Jess has suffered from anxiety at times and spent years isolating in her bedroom, but she’s made big strides since moving schools to Unity City Academy, as well as getting involved with The Junction Foundation.
She linked up with the charity during the Covid-19 pandemic and has become an active member of the ‘I Will’ Group. Alongside other young carers, she helps to organise events, and enjoys the opportunity to be creative.
She’s made new friends and built her confidence. Instead of isolating in her bedroom, she attends dance lessons as a hobby, and – as if she hasn’t got enough on her plate – she helps out at a charity shop on Sundays.
“Being at The Junction has definitely helped me to come out of my shell,” she says. “It’s about being able to talk to people who are in the same position as you and understand what you’re going through. I also get telephone calls from them every now and again to check I’m OK.”
Last year, the charity had 3,341 contacts with young carers, with 1,639 young people and their families offered support, either one-to-one or in group sessions. The Junction Foundation also organises social groups to help combat social isolation, and skills sessions to help with issues such as mental health, anxiety, financial pressures, and confidence building.
The charity works with Young Carers Champions – members of staff in schools, who are trained to be more aware of the needs of young carers. Indeed, Phil believes every school should have a Young Carers Champion as part of a more structured approach.
“Growing up can be hard enough without the added pressure of being a young carer. It can already be very isolating, and the pandemic made that worse.
“However, we see young carers thrive despite these pressures and, with the additional support that we provide, many young carers take advantage of the skills and knowledge they learn from their caring roles. It’s so rewarding to see young carers reach – and often exceed – their potential.
“We support young carers and their families with many issues: navigating education, emotional wellbeing and financial pressures are just a few. Many of the young people we meet outwardly portray an image of being strong, confident and resilient, but it can be easy to forget that young carers need support too.
“That’s why it’s more important than ever to put support in place, so that young carers can have the same opportunities as everyone else.
“We need to recognise what an incredible job young carers do. They are unsung heroes who are often undervalued because they just get on with it, and don’t ask for any thanks. We also underestimate the skills and great experience young carers acquire. They’re learning invaluable life skills that we simply don’t make the most of.”
Jess agrees. “I didn’t know how to cook but when Mam’s condition got worse, I became the cook of the house,” she says with a shrug. “I found out in an ethics class the other day that being a young carer looks mint on your CV because you learn a lot, so I just think there needs to be a bit more respect for what we do.”
She hopes her CV will be impressive enough to help her achieve her ambition to be a firefighter.
“Firefighters are heroes, and I think that would be the best job for me because I like helping other people, I’ve become a team player, and I’ve learned to cope with pressure,” she declares.
That’s for the future, but there are more pressing matters just now. Jess has run out of time – she has to rush home to cook tea for her family.