Reach for the sky – that’s the message behind this year’s National Care Leavers’ Week (NCLW), taking place from the 24th to the 31st of October. The campaign aims to raise public awareness of those uniquely vulnerable young people who were raised in public care – to remind us that these young people are ‘unique individuals with unique aspirations and talents.’ NCLW wants to ‘shine a light on those who struggle, and those who succeed’ so that their problems are acknowledged and their achievements celebrated.

It’s a mission that the National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS) is fully behind. As providers of advocacy to children and young people in care, we frequently encounter disaffected and disengaged young people, whose voice has been lost. Often, they are completely unaware of their rights or how they can access the type of support that will change their lives for the better and open up new opportunities for them. Our advocates are there to help young people in care express their wishes and feelings when important decisions are being made about their lives and, ultimately to instil them with a sense of ownership when it comes to their own futures. That’s what reaching for the sky is all about and it’s resulted in a positive new direction for many of the care leavers that NYAS advocates have supported over the years.

Take Jess for instance. Now 29 years old and working towards a career in social work with children and young people herself, Jess was in foster care from the age of 13.

As a young adult Jess’ voice was being lost when it came to decisions that directly affected her, and she felt powerless to change her circumstances. Having the support of a NYAS advocate changed it all. “I had become complacent”, says Jess, “because I wasn’t aware that I had the right to speak out or to ask to change things but with my advocate’s knowledge and support I came to understand that I could do things like request that certain people weren’t involved in my care plan meetings – sessions that were very personal to me.”

With NYAS’ support, Jess was also able to visit her sister in Manchester, something she had been trying to facilitate for a long time. She says, “I was frustrated at how long it was taking for the visit to be sorted – to access the travel warrant I needed to take the trip to Manchester, then my advocate came in and really helped to move things along, so I could be reunited with my sibling much more quickly than expected.”

Importantly, through interaction with NYAS, Jess also discovered a passion for social care and the confidence to pursue a future in it. By participating in NYAS foster care training sessions and social worker training, Jess started to build up knowledge of the vocation and, since leaving care, has been committed to securing a career that enables her to help other young people like herself. “NYAS taught me that you don’t have to just put up with things. You have rights and are entitled to help and support. I want to spread this message to other young people in care – to tell them, don’t be afraid to speak up, be confident and never give up on your wishes.”

As we mark National Care Leaver’s Week this year, it’s vital to celebrate stories like Jess’, not only to raise awareness of the fantastic potential that care leavers have but to highlight to the politicians and policy-makers just what can be achieved if we support the rights of young care leavers and nurture their aspirations.