YOU wouldn’t know it, but there are well over 130 young carers in Rugby.
Some of them are just eight years old, but they clean, cook, make beds, do ironing, organise shopping lists and think nothing of it.
For them, washing, bathing, clothing and putting loved ones to bed is normal because it’s the only way of life they’ve ever known.
A lot of them don’t even know they are carers, or what a carer is, until they visit a friend’s house and see how other people their age live.
Along with the physical toil is the mental strain of grappling with their school work, social lives, playground bullies, depression, anxiety and stress.
My visit to Rugby Young Carers was a chance to hear first hand what life is like for these youngsters, who are no different from all the other young people their age I had met – happy, clever, polite and cocky.
I sat down in front of around seven of them and Annette Collier, who runs Rugby Young Carers, to chat about what they do and how they cope.
They wouldn’t admit it – never mind brag about it – but the amount of time, work and emotion they invest in the people they care for is truly inspiring. Their carer responsibility is with them literally 24/7, regardless of if they’re out shopping, asleep or in school.
As soon as we begin talking they all seem to be bursting with a never-ending list of stories and problems they are desperate to tell me about; but they never talk over each other, they never shout or try to ‘out do’ one another in any way. And somehow – they never complain.
One girl, who is just 12 years old, eloquently described the complicated woes of her family’s financial situation.
It stunned me as I’d never heard a 12-year-old talking about mortgages, home ownership and corporate tax like a solicitor.
But this was just the beginning.
Another girl has serious problems sleeping – and it quickly emerged that they all share the same problem.
It’s not just their time and energy that are affected.
It’s their entire lifestyle.
The slightest noise in the middle of the night and they automatically wake up, anxious to make sure no one in their house has had a fall or hurt themselves. Some of them fall asleep every night worrying about waking up to find a loved one dead in the next room, or mid-way through a fit or seizure.
It’s all incredibly moving, but as they begin to describe their daily struggles, more and more troubling issues begin to emerge.
One 16-year-old, who has cared for one of her parents since she was 11, suffered severe depression mid-way through her teens and began self-harming.
Fortunately, after therapy, and support from Rugby Young Carers, she was able to take some control of the situation.
Soon after I’d heard this, another girl, who had until this point been sitting quietly listening to her friends, burst into tears and had to leave.
“You have to hear it first hand to believe it, don’t you?”, Annette said to me later. “There is one girl who is badly depressed and needs help, but she won’t speak to anyone about it, not even her family.”
The girl who ran out crying would later rejoin the group. She was determined to finish what she started, she told me with a smile. Later in the afternoon she was again looking upset.
Her voice wavered slightly and as it did so a 12-year-old girl sat on the other side of the room stood up, walked over, and clasped her arms around her. The others joined in until the girl at the centre of it all felt better. It was how I’d imagine a support group to feel like. But these weren’t adults grappling with gambling or drug addictions – they were children.
I asked them when the last time was they each had a day off when they could forget about their caring responsibilities. I was met with blank faces; most of them couldn’t even remember the last night of peaceful sleep they enjoyed.
Another big problem for the carers is school. They worry, struggle and battle through their role as carers, only to be outcasts in school, shunned and bullied by other pupils and misunderstood by staff. Teachers mean well but some don’t quite grasp the reality of their situation, I’m told, and even when they do they don’t know how to act. One 16-year-old said: “I had my phone confiscated at school recently – I keep it on me at all times in case my mother who I care for needs to get hold of me.
“But when I received a text off her the other day it was taken away. It’s the same with homework – I struggle to find time to do it, but instead of anything constructive being done I’m just dished out another detention, which makes my problems even worse.”
At least three of the children sitting before me are badly bullied. Their parents are mocked in school, and the abuse has led to several youngsters being involved in fights. At least two of them are on their ‘final warnings’ in school.
Another concern is their school work – which inevitably suffers as they simply don’t have the time or the energy to do it.
Rugby Young Carers, along with the help of local volunteers, set up a workshop on Saturdays covering the core subjects to help keep them up to date with their studies.
The group receives help from organisations including Rugby’s Rotary Club, which helps with the education on Saturdays and pays for days out; the Soroptimists who raise money and bake cakes each week; Thurlston village, which recently raised £1,300; and the Friends of Bilton who raise money for days out.
The carers I spoke to are angry and upset and need more help than the county council can afford to give them.
Yet throughout my whole experience there not once did I hear any one of these people complain.
They also wanted me to mention how important Rugby Young Carers, and Annette, was to them.
Without their support, many of them said, there would be nothing for them, nothing for them to look forward to, fewer friends and no hope.