Welcome to Madlug: Your Voice – a new regular feature on our blog where we give care leavers a platform to share their stories in their own words.

For the second instalment, we spoke to care leaver and women's field hockey international, Ayeisha McFerran, who recently represented Ireland at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

After hearing Ayeisha’s BBC interview where she discussed moving her belongings in bin bags to her first foster home, Madlug’s founder, Dave reached out and invited her to the Madlug HQ.

[I ask Ayeisha about her experience meeting the team]

It was nice to exchange stories and just sit and chat openly about my experience in care since it’s not exactly dinner table conversation!

Madlug wants kids to be able to have a voice and see that people do support them which goes into what I believe in as well, especially having come through the system.

A child in care could see someone walking down the street with a Madlug backpack and know that that person is supporting them and believing in them, and I think that’s such a simple but important message.

People might just see it as selling bags but it’s more than that – it’s giving kids in the system dignity so they aren’t just seen as “the trash kids.”

Having been in the public eye for some time, Ayeisha says she’s more of an ‘open book’ now. “If I can help one person, I feel like I’ve fulfilled my purpose,” she says.

Could you tell us about your background?

I’m from Larne in Northern Ireland and I’m 25 now. I was first in the care system when I was 15, so it would have been just after my mum passed away with cancer. I lived with a family member for nine months and then I went into care.

I was lucky to have a placement in Larne. My two brothers also went into care the year before me so I was aware of how it worked. I was in the system for three years until I was 18 and then I moved out.

Would you mind telling us a bit about your foster family and the support you received from them?

Yeah, sure. The family I moved to was aware of my whole family situation because one of their daughters was friends with my sister, so they knew what I was coming from and everything.

I was brought to them from my aunt and uncle’s and I was really welcomed. They showed me to my room and helped carry my bags in. It was just a really relaxed vibe. There wasn’t any real rules put onto me.

[Ayeisha talks about arriving at the house with her belongings in bin bags – a large part of why the Madlug movement resonates with her so much]

My foster parents were told by my social worker that I played hockey but they didn’t know the extent to which I played it. I think they just thought it was hockey on a Saturday morning!

Over the period when my hockey picked up, there were times when it got quite hard because it was obviously quite full-on. But as much as they could, they would help. They would drive me to meet people, they would take me to the train, things like that – they were always really supportive with it.

Sometimes I had to figure it out things for myself which I think was also good for me because it taught me about the real world. They were quite realistic with how they treated me which I really liked looking back at it now (although I don’t think I appreciated it at the time!)

They were the same with me as they were with their own daughters. If I did something wrong, they told me I did something wrong. It wasn’t all sunshine and daisies.

They encouraged me to do my own thing, so if I wanted to go somewhere or I wanted friends over, it was totally fine. At the time when you’re 16 or 17, you’re thinking “this is so annoying” but I think it actually set me up for what I would go on to do.

Were you worried that you wouldn’t be placed into a family that would support your hockey commitments, or at that stage did you have no idea it would be something you would do as a career?

I didn’t think it would be something I would do as a career. I knew I wanted to do it as I was already in the Ireland under-age stuff. There was a worry that it wasn’t going to happen – especially because I could have got placed anywhere. But the fact that I was placed locally and was able to continue my hockey was huge because it was also my outlet from being in the system.

Do you still have a relationship with your foster family now?

Yeah, they’re you’re typical Irish family out in the country where technology and planning things isn’t the best so you just kind of show up at their door! I was home there for a week or so just after the Olympics. I popped up to see if anyone was in the house and luckily they were so it’s nice that I can go in straight away.

Do you see your siblings at all?

With living abroad, it’s kind of harder because my life is here, there and everywhere. But I always stay in contact with them and whenever I’m home, I see my sister. My two brothers are very much your typical boys – you see them when you see them. That’s just our family and it’s perfect for us.

What made you interested in hockey to begin with?

As a kid, I was hyper all the time and I had so much energy. Every day of the week I was doing a different sport. Hockey is just one of those things that stuck because it was something completely different. I wanted to get better at it because I hate not being good at everything!

[Ayeisha talks about wanting to be a role model for children going through the care system]

You’re never told you can go on and do something bigger. You’re always told, “okay, we’re going to make it to 18 and see where life takes us.”

For most kids in care, it’s never their fault they’re there. Sometimes – not in every case – they’ll end up in bad situations, yet the media will always promote the worst-case scenario.

But kids in care have a life and they have dreams. I want to help them realise that they can go into whatever they want – whether that’s going to university, getting that job they want, playing sport, meeting new people, whatever. It doesn’t have to be playing international sport at top-level.

I want them to believe in themselves and realise they do have opportunities. It’s much harder and more often than not, you have to figure out things by yourself and you don’t have the same support network around you. But that’s okay because if you have a dream to go and do something, it’s possible to do it. That, for me, is the big thing that I really want to get across to kids in care.

You spoke about having a fairly positive experience in the care system – but do you have any thoughts on perhaps how it needs to change, or what it’s currently lacking?

My older brother turned 18 and was kind of like “that’s it” but my younger brother has the best relationship with his foster family (he still lives there and he’s 22). So kids’ experiences obviously differ. I get that’s also on the child and how they choose to be but I think the support needs to be there and the opportunity needs to be there – not just from social workers (who are underpaid and understaffed) but from higher up. Giving opportunities to kids in care to go and learn trades and skills, and meet people in the system, but also to talk to people who have left the system. That’s something I would really love to get involved in.

Kids need to be seen not just as numbers but as an opportunity to make something better, and I think that’s what needs to change. Once they change age, or they change area, or things don’t go well, they are handed off to social workers left, right, and centre. But it takes time to build relationships – especially after being put in the system.

I think time also needs to be invested to support the social workers and foster families so that relationships can be built there too.

[I tell Ayeisha about an article I read around Barnardo’s appeal for more foster carers as the number of children needing care has risen by a third]

Do you have any thoughts on what could be done to encourage more people to foster?

I think more people should see the opportunity to foster as something more than just taking in a kid. It’s opening your home and opening your life to someone in dire need of a safe space and I think that comes with a combination of individuals being comfortable with that and seeing that as a positive opportunity to make a difference in a person’s life.

When I go home, no one really talks about fostering or kids in care and I think that comes from an issue of not knowing how to address the topic or asking “how do we foster?” “what is involved?” and “what does it require?”

I think the next part of that challenge is opening the conversation. It’s an uncomfortable conversation asking “how do we open our home to take in a child?” but I think the more people that talk about it openly, the better the result.

Sometimes kids being taken from their families and their homes is unavoidable, but I do believe that things can be done earlier as a preventative measure as opposed to being a reaction. I think that’s where the higher-ups can do something and save kids from moving about six, seven, eight, nine times in their life.

It’s definitely an interesting one because there are so many ways you can tackle it. That’s just how I would see it on both sides.

[I ask Ayeisha about her experience with social workers]

I think I had four. Initially, there was one who came and spoke to me about moving with my aunt and uncle and then I was with her for a couple of months. She then left, so I got another one. Then she left so then I had two final ones – my 16 plus social workers.

One of them was super chilled. We would go out, go and get a coffee during my free periods, and we had a good relationship that never felt forced. I was really fortunate to have her stay with me until I finished my studies in America (I was out there for four years) and I built quite a good relationship with her as a result. She then took some time off for personal reasons so her boss took over.

Her boss played hockey as well so she really understood what I was doing and supported me in that. I think that in itself is quite rare to have – people who understand what hockey means, or what it meant to me.

There’s another athlete from Northern Ireland who moved about 12 times or so in the space of his time in the system. So in situations like that, you’re never going to open up to someone because you’ll be thinking “okay, how long until I get moved again?” I think that really affects kids because they think “these adults don’t see anything in me, so why would I share how I feel?” That’s a big issue. These kids have been through hell already and they need someone to open up to.

Find out more about Ayeisha here.

Interview written and conducted by Emma Gibbins

September 30, 2021 — Emma Gibbins

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