Conquering assumptions with altitude

15th May 2009 at 01:00
In November, 22 young people in care will embark on a 100km journey of a lifetime

It is inspiring to hear about James McDonald's achievements. The 16- year-old is in training to trek the world's highest mountains in Nepal. He has just run his first 10km and recently had his first tournament fight, after starting boxing 18 months ago.

He has been chosen to represent Aberdeenshire in five-aside football at the Special Olympics in July and has won medals swimming competitively - he also bakes a great chocolate cake.

James's mum died when he was eight and he is looked after at an Aberdeenshire children's home. His ambition is to work as a chef offshore.

Every morning, he gets up at 6am to get two buses to Banff and Buchan College, 40 miles away in Fraserburgh. He has never missed a day and will get up in the dark to slog through blizzards to get there.

And he loves it. "I do PE, maths and English - it's ace," says James. "You've got more freedom - you're not in school all the time. You are out and about and you can go down to the shops and that kind of thing."

James is one of 22 young people in care in Scotland who are embarking on an incredible challenge. They will trek 100km in 10 days at high altitudes in Nepal, setting up camp and meeting people from some of the poorest communities in the world.

"I am excited about going - just to see the people and how they live," says James, who will be leaving Scotland for the first time when he heads off on the long-haul flight in November.

The venture has been organised to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Who Cares? Scotland, a leading national advocacy service representing the interests of 5,000 children who are looked after away from home in Scotland.

In this anniversary year, the organisation wants to challenge the stigmatisation of young people in care, celebrate their achievements and encourage them - like James - to fulfil their potential.

"Folk make assumptions about young people being in care - that, for some reason, it's their fault for being there. Whereas the majority of the time it's nothing to do with them at all; it's just life circumstances," says Grant Kilroy, regional manager east at Who Cares? Scotland.

"Either their parents can't cope with them, can't cope themselves, therefore can't cope with having a child, or something may have happened, like the death of a parent. There are a whole range of circumstances which might lead to a young person being in residential care," says Mr Kilroy, one of the organisers of the Nepal Trek.

Before they go, youngsters have to raise Pounds 2,000 each to cover their costs, help fund health and education projects in Nepal and contribute to the work of Who Cares? Scotland. But the organisation stresses that the priority is for the young people to learn and gain personal benefit from their experience.

All will be accompanied by their care worker and James's key worker Paul Morrell will travel with him. Paul is a qualified gym coach and the two are about to step up their training regime to prepare for high altitudes.

Once they get to Nepal, youngsters who feel able to tackle the higher levels will be able to trek on trails upwards of 4,500 metres. "We have to build up our cardiovascular system, so we are doing intervals training. That means you run flat out to a target and then slow down until you get your breath back and then do it flat out again," Paul explains, in the cosy sitting room at the children's home.

"James and I have never experienced real poverty, but we'll be going to all these villages and meeting some of the people; I think that will be a real eye-opener for everyone. I think it will be a real life-changing experience to see what such poverty is like and how we can help people just by raising some money," he says.

"James has got a really good view on life. He's had a troubled upbringing, which is not at all his fault. But he's saying, `Let's just get on with it.' He's seen what things can do to people and is saying, `I am not getting involved in a lot of things like that. I've got a goal.'"

The two crossed the finish line together in their recent 10km fund-raising run: "Paul makes you do it," James says of his coach. "Whereas other people might say, you can't do it - OK - next one. He pushes you."

James has done a PowerPoint presentation on Nepal as part of his college work and is overcoming his natural shyness to ask for donations towards his trip.

"I think it will be a totally new experience for him and it will give him a real boost in confidence. I think, from what he's been through, he deserves a break like this. This is something really positive for him and he's getting out there to ask people to donate, which is a real big thing for him."

James has learning difficulties and has been making good progress at Banff and Buchan College after staff helped him settle in: "He gets on really well and the support he receives from the guidance staff there is extremely good," says Paul.

"He's doing an extension course, so he gets help with his reading and writing, with life skills and computing. We're well chuffed with the college - James has come on leaps and bounds. He's also going to come and teach me how to do PowerPoint at home," Paul laughs.

"James is a real inspiration and goes a long way to help us tackle some of the discrimination experienced by young people that are looked after," says Heather Gray, director of Who Cares? Scotland.

"Highlighting his achievements helps us tackle some of those perceptions and hopefully make a difference. He is such a good example to other young people."


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