"I just thought it was what every child did to help around the house" - the young carer who wants to help others like her
Peeling potatoes and making cups of tea might sound like typical household chores for any teenager. But for Thirza Walton , they began when she was just six years old - and extended far beyond lending a hand in the kitchen.
With her mum beset with mobility problems, Thirza would often help her to get in and out of the shower and even wash her feet.
“I just thought it was what every child did to help their parents around the house,” Thirza, now aged 21, recalls.
In reality, she was a young carer - an often unseen undertaking now estimated to be carried out by 4,000 children across Lancashire every day.
“My mum realised that I was taking on a caring role and she mentioned it to my teachers. But then, when I was 11, my dad also fell ill with arthritis and heart problems - so I took on the role of cooking meals, handling medication and collecting prescriptions,” Thirza says.
“By the age of 12, I could cook a full roast dinner unsupervised.”
In spite of the increased responsibility, the Preston schoolgirl was initially left without any practical or emotional support. Thirza says she took it all “on the chin”, but she was reluctant to reveal her caring responsibilities to her friends - and when they eventually became common knowledge in secondary school, sympathy was in short supply.
“We had a piece of English homework about what we did everyday - and then I started to get bullied, because I wasn’t living a ‘normal life’.
“As my Mum and Dad’s illnesses spiralled, my caring role increased and I was struggling to get homework done and revise. I got some support from a service for about six months when I was 13, but then that stopped and everything got heavier on my shoulders.”
Thurza struggled on throughout her GCSE years, but, eventually, the weight of responsibility became too much.
“At 16, my college tutor noticed I had taken a turn for the worse with my mental health. She took me into a classroom and I just sat for two and a half hours and cried.
“I told her everything and all the stress I had been under. She made a referral through to the young carers’ service - I got an assessment and I was identified as needing quite a high level of support.”
Thirza is now working to ensure that children in a similar situation are offered that support long before they reach the crisis point which she did. She has recently begun an apprenticeship with Barnardo’s, which runs a service aimed at helping young carers on behalf of Lancashire County Council.
The charity has developed a new scheme to encourage schools to spot the signs of a young carer in their classrooms - and offer them the support they need.
The Lancashire Young Carers School Charter Mark is being launched to coincide with a national awareness day to highlight the difficulties faced by those whose responsibilities belie their young years.
Schools which take part in the programme will be shown how to identify young carers and help them - both during the school day and after they go home to look after the relatives who rely upon them.
“Our main aim is to reduce the impact of caring,” Jenny Ashcroft, Barnardo’s Children’s Manager, says of the work which the charity is already doing across the county.
“We come in with a whole family approach and look at what we can do to ease the caring burden on the young person. There is one-to-one support for them which is tailored to look at their particular concerns and issues.”
Young people are then referred to other statutory and voluntary organisations which can help them with the practicalities of their day-to-day lives and also to find time for themselves.
It is hoped that the new school-based scheme will identify so-called 'hidden' young carers and ensure that they are not left to cope alone. But Jenny says that many young people would not want to be completely relieved of their caring duties, even if that were possible.
“The majority of our young carers are very proud of what they do and rightly so. We just don’t want it to have a detrimental impact on them,” she explains.
And far from resenting a childhood which she “sometimes” feels as though she missed out on, Thirza says it actually helped make her the person she is today.
“I feel like my Mum and Dad have given me a fantastic opportunity - I wouldn’t be in the role of an apprentice now and I wouldn't have the maturity level that I have now if it wasn’t for caring for my parents from such a young age.”