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A place to be themselves

Breaks by Stirling Young Carers give children who care for others a chance to get away from everyday pressures, writes Douglas Blane

Breaks by Stirling Young Carers give children who care for others a chance to get away from everyday pressures, writes Douglas Blane

In the woods behind the youth hostel on the banks of Loch Lomond, groups of seven to 11-year-olds have been set a tough challenge - to build a den big enough to house two people for the night. It's now about to get tougher.

"You have to be estate agents and sell your shelter to the other group," outdoor instructor Darren Thompson tells them. "What are its good points? Does it have a sink, a bathroom, a kitchen?"

The children shake their heads in puzzlement. No, it has none of these. "So you're saying it's a studio flat," Darren prompts them.

Young Bruce gets the idea. "It's next to the water and has a lovely view," he suggests, and the others start to catch on, too.

"You can eat the midges," says Jessica. "And if you pull the bark up there's all these bugs underneath that you can eat too."

"There's your kitchen then," Darren says.

It's the final afternoon of a three-day stay at Rowardennan Youth Hostel for a group of children who need a break more than most. Besides going to school, young carers have a heavy responsibility - looking after a family member with difficulties.

"It could be a parent, a grandparent or a sibling with an illness or disability," says James Marshall, young carers co-ordinator at Stirling Young Carers, the organisation which brought them away this weekend.

"They are referred to us by social work, schools and other organisations, or they can refer themselves. We are a charity that delivers support, activities and short breaks. We give them a chance to have their voices heard and to have fun with other young people in similar situations."

This normally takes the form of fortnightly group meetings or one-to-one sessions on specific issues, such as family separation or bereavement. But during school holidays the caring role is intensified, and short breaks are particularly valuable, James says.

"Residentials like this are key for confidence building, but we have to find funding for them. The Scottish Youth Hostels Association is funding this one."

Before marketing their dens in the wood, the young carers have been hiking, raft building, swimming, team building and learning survival skills, they say. They have also been canoeing on the loch this morning. "I liked the canoeing best," Evy laughs. "I got to soak James."

The team building in groups of 10 was tricky at first. "Nobody wanted to listen," says Lucy. "Sometimes you don't get on with everybody. So you have to try harder."

Animated when chatting about the weekend, the kids grow serious when asked about their role as young carers. Separated parents, disabilities and neurological conditions are some of the problems they have to handle at home.

"My mum tries to get up but she falls all the time," says Evy. "I have to pick her up."

"I learned sign language so I could talk to my big brother," says Bruce. "He has Down's syndrome and can't talk. My other brother has it too, but he's stage 2, so he just has learning difficulties."

Nobody asks if you want to look after these family members, the children say. "You do it because you love them," says Evy. "Sometimes you get annoyed at having to do so much. But when that happens I go to my room and listen to my iPod."

Handling emotions can be hard, they all say. "I tell my best friend everything," says Lucy. "You can always talk to James. He's awesome. We've made really good friends in the group and you talk to them, too."

Two-hour group sessions every fortnight give the youngsters a regular break and the chance to play games, do arts and crafts, or chat with friends.

"We also organise workshops, on things like positive relationships," James says. "You can do so much more when you get them away for the weekend like this. They have a great time."

The youth hostel at Rowardennan was a nice surprise, says Jessica. "It is so cosy inside. We are in bunk beds with our friends, so we stay up late talking and trying on make-up.

- Stirling Young Carers: www.carers.orglocal-centrestirlingyoung- carers-service

- Children's names have been changed at the request of Stirling Young Carers

How it works

Give Us A Break offers funded activity breaks for socially excluded or vulnerable children and young people at various SYHA hostels around Scotland.

Breaks include a two-night stay and activities tailored to the age and abilities of the group, such as mountain biking, gorge walking, kayaking, team building and problem solving.

Participants are asked to fundraise for a small amount towards the cost of the trip to give them a sense of ownership and develop organisational skills.

About 200 young people each year are funded by SYHA through the programme, and 2,600 young people from across Scotland have taken part since the project began in 2004.

SYHA works with outdoor activity providers, such as Can You Experience - which delivered the activities to the Stirling Young Carers group at Rowardennan Youth Hostel.

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