As care leavers themselves, Andy and Matt Smith intimately understand the challenges faced by young people navigating life's uncertainties. Together, they forged Smash Life, an organisation offering inspiring talks, mentoring, group work, and training to young people across the UK. Their mission is not just about resilience; it's about turning hardships into stepping stones for others to follow. Read on as we find out more about them.

Hi Andy and Matt. Would you mind telling our readers a little bit about yourselves?

Sure. We are brothers who were placed into the care system by social services after neglectful parenting from our biological mother and father. We went into care aged four- and five-years-old and stayed until leaving care upon completion of university.

Unfortunately, we experienced physical and emotional abuse whilst in care which negatively impacted our wellbeing, our friendships, our relationships, and ultimately, our views of ourselves and the world.

We both had a huge desire to “be who we needed when we were younger” and have spent the best part of our adult lives working in various social care, youth, and community roles with the aim of engaging, connecting, and being that voice and role model that many children in care need.

What is Smash Life?

Smash Life offers mentoring, inspirational talks, group work, and training to children and young professionals. We aim to engage, educate and inspire to leave children feeling cared for and young professionals remembering their “why”.

Our service focuses on being proactive with early intervention and connection, and we aim to create spaces where children feel valued and connected, rather than judged and shamed.

Smash Life has won various awards, including the Mayor of Shrewsbury Gold Award for the Overall Winners in the Youth Category 2019. We have also been nominated for the National Community Organisation Award for AGE at The National Diversity Awards 2020 in association with ITV news and have been mentioned in Telford & Wrekin Council ‘Outstanding’ OFSTED Report in 2020. Telford & Wrekin was the first council outside of London to go from ‘requires improvement’ (2016) to ‘outstanding’ and is the only council in the West Midlands and north west to achieve ‘outstanding’.

How did the idea for Smash Life come about?

Between us, we have worked for many years in various councils, social care, and youth and community roles, and have been extremely frustrated with the red tape, policies, and barriers that stop professionals from connecting and making a real difference in children’s lives. We decided to take control and create a service that is proactive, engaging, inspiring, kind, and child-centered – and something we would have benefitted from ourselves growing up.

In our experience, many young people often ask professionals “what do you know?”. Our service differs from others in that we have lived experience of being in care and without a mum and dad for the majority of our lives.

This, combined with our professional experience and qualifications, allows us to offer advice and guidance based on real-life and not just from a textbook. We find this resonates with young people because we as adults are able to open up to them, which means they, in turn, open up to us.

Smash Life is also creative in its approach to mentoring and encouraging young people to open up. It is limiting, and often oppressive, for young people to be asked to sit in a room and “talk about it”.

We have found that bringing sport, music, games, walks, and trips into the mentoring process not only creates better results – but young people actually enjoy and look forward to the sessions. We now also offer an NOCN accreditation which can be completed alongside our mentoring service.

Could you tell us more about your experience growing up in care?

Like many, unfortunately, we both had a really tough time growing up in care. After a neglectful first few years and being separated from our birth parents, we were then separated from our brother who needed specialist support because of his learning difficulties.

During this particularly rough time, we really needed a loving family that would care for us, and help us to create happy childhood memories. Unfortunately, we were placed with people who abused us both physically and emotionally (for a total of eight years).

Our sadness, hurt and pain came out in various behaviours which many professionals, teachers and friends judged, and which isolated us from society even more. It was a vicious circle in which there were no pastoral or wellbeing services to support us.

Instead, it was a case of “man up” – a message we got from a lot of professionals we came into contact with. We struggled to form friendships, our abuse made us angry, and learning was at the bottom of our agenda when we went to school.

With unresolved trauma, we found it hard to navigate through our teenage years and post-16 education. We felt extremely hurt and confused about what happened to us, yet no one seemed to want to listen or even try to piece together our behaviour and understand why we may be struggling. We felt we lost a childhood that should have been happy, full of joy, learning, and fun. Naturally, the negative experiences we encountered made us extremely lost and even affected our sibling relationship for many years.

What do you hope to change within the care system?

We want to bring more kindness and connection to children and young people, and we want children to feel that someone cares, is in their corner, and is actually listening to and acting on their needs.

We want children and young people to understand that what life may throw at them can be used as fuel to achieve and succeed in life. That they really can still be anything they want to be.

We want to educate professionals through lived experience, and we want everyone to understand that “children don’t care what you know until they know you care”. Unless you have empathy, understanding, and a child-centred heart, you will struggle to connect. We want professionals to really know their “why” - every child matters.

We want children to feel seen, heard, and know that someone cares, and we want children to know that they can also be change agents - they are the future and it’s up to us to be the role models they desperately need.

How do you believe Smash Life can help to achieve this?

Simply by sharing our voice, showing our vulnerability, and capturing the child’s voice, we believe we can help change mindsets, attitudes and approaches. Children need to be central to everything.

How did you hear about Madlug?

We have known about Madlug for a few years and have always been so impressed. We both left one of our homes as children in care using bin bags to transport our belongings and we know how degrading and upsetting this feels.

Every Smash Life staff member has a Madlug bag so they can not only support the mission but also open up conversations with children and young people and help to spread understanding and kindness.

What are your hopes for the future? Any plans/new projects on the horizon?

We have many hopes and dreams. We currently have accessed a woodland where we hope to offer education and training packages. We also want to further develop our training packages for professionals and continue to give back and offer hope and opportunities to children and young people. We will never lose our “why”.

Find out more about Andy and Matt here.

February 25, 2022 — Emma Gibbins

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