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134 APRIL 2010
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BEING A BIG SISTER

Growing up

Carina Lewis

Mary was having some problems last week. I called her to arrange to meet and she broke down in tears on the phone. She told me there was no point in making any arrangements because she was going to run away Ė something she has never done before.

It turned out she had been in a fight with one of the other girls at the home and had slapped the girlís face. It was difficult to ascertain much more about the incident because she was so upset. I suggested that if she truly intended to run away she should come to my house because it would be a safe place, but I thought it would be better to stay there and try to sort it out with the house parents. I told her I would call back in a short while.

When I called back I spoke to the house mother. She assured me Mary had calmed down and no longer wanted to run away and suggested I see her the next day. I spent the rest of the evening wondering what had brought on this behaviour. Itís so unlike Mary nowadays.

The following day, when I picked her up, Mary was visibly relieved to be away from the home and practically dragged me out of the gate. We went for a coffee so that we could talk. Gradually she told me what had happened. Apparently it started with an argument with her older sister about money. Her sister has a bank account and their grandmother occasionally puts small amounts of pocket money into the account for both of the girls. Unfortunately, when Mary needs any money she is dependent on her sisterís good will to withdraw it and sometimes her older sister refuses to do so. Itís a difficult situation and this is what the argument had been about.

In itself the row was a normal sibling kind of row and would have blown over. However, Mary went into the living room afterwards to find the other girls discussing her and her sister and the money situation. She was already angry and told them to stop talking about her and that it was none of their business. One of the girls said something, I donít know what, that made Mary lose her temper and she slapped the girlís face and told her to shut up.

She knew this had not been a good way to deal with the situation. I wondered aloud why she had been so angry. She said she was tired of having everyone in the house knowing everything about her. She was tired of sharing a room with two other girls and she was tired of having her sister be in control of her money. I could see her point of view.

Mary is growing up and will be 18 in a few months time. Sheís generally a sensible and mature young lady. She is beginning to think about what she is going to do at the end of this year when she finishes school. She is having a meeting in a few weeks time with the appropriate people about her plans. So, on the one hand she is trying to be mature enough to make some major decisions about her future, including the possibility of leaving care, while on the other hand she has not experienced a great deal of independence. I could understand why she was feeling scared and emotional.

One of the problems of growing up in residential care is that it is sometimes difficult for each child to be treated according to their individual needs. In Maryís case there are two other girls her age at the home but, because they are prone to getting into trouble, they are rarely allowed out on their own. Unfortunately the same rule has often been applied to Mary. Of course some rules and regulations are necessary for the safety and well-being of the children but, especially as they get older and if they are capable, they want and need to take more control of their own lives. After all, thatís the way we all learn. Mary has reached the stage that she wants to be independent, although she still needs some support as she becomes an adult.

Another problem is the lack of privacy. The house mother always does her best to maintain each child's privacy, but naturally things are occasionally overheard or witnessed and there are times when the whole group knows whatís going on and talks about it. Sometimes this information also gets used as a means of teasing one another. Maryís frustration with having to make some major decisions, her lack of independence, her environment and the lack of privacy had eventually caused her to lose her temper, leading to the fight and a desire to escape.

As we drank our coffee we went on to discuss her options and what she might do at the end of the year. In the past she has been keen to go to college to do nursing and to remain at the home while she continued her studies. However, she is now talking about leaving school with her certificate in hairdressing and going straight into a job. ďI just want to live alone and do things the way I want to,Ē she declared. She doesnít want to stay at the home for another three years while sheís at college. She also knows how difficult it will be to earn money to pay her fees if she wants to do a full-time course. The way she feels at the moment, the sooner she starts working, the sooner she can save the money to pay her way through college and she will gain her independence at the same time.

We talked about what it would be like living alone. The home would support her for the first six months. They would help her with issues such as finding somewhere to live, finding a job, and other practicalities, but after that she would be more or less on her own.

Most youth leaving home know that, if necessary, they have family to turn to and perhaps some financial help if they run into problems, or at the very least they know the community where they will be living. Mary wonít have that support. None of her family will be living close by, her sister is moving away in a few months, she has nobody to lean on and the community where she grew up is hundreds of miles away. Itís no wonder that she is feeling stressed and angry.

She has a few more months before she has to make a decision. All I can do is give her some guidance and support, although I believe that whatever happens she will eventually continue studying and I admire her grit and determination to do it alone. Iím very apprehensive for her and I know her houseparents are too. Iíve assured Mary that whatever she does I'll always be there as her friend. Now we can only wait to see what she decides.

Big Brothers Big Sisters is a youth mentoring non-profit organization. It was founded in the USA in 1904 and became international in 1998. The program matches youth in need with adult volunteers in one to one relationships which have a direct and lasting positive impact on the lives of the young people. For further information go to www.bbbsi.org

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