Since losing their mum, Yvonne, on Valentine’s Day 2016, Caoimhe Lawell (26) and her little sister Eileen (12) have been inseparable. Caoimhe is more than just a sister – she is Eileen’s legal guardian, making Eileen one of thousands of children in Northern Ireland looked after by family members when their parents aren’t able to.
Things haven’t been easy for the sisters, now living in north Belfast. But through the difficulties of their new relationship, Kinship Care have been on hand to offer invaluable support and advice.
For Caoimhe, there was no question of looking after Eileen after their mum’s death.
“I wanted Eileen even if it meant I’d end up with no money, no this or no that. I didn’t care what it meant,” said Caoimhe, who moved from west Belfast to north Belfast so that Eileen could stay at the same school. “I was determined we’d get by no matter how hard it was at times.”
Although Caoimhe initially tried to balance caring for her sister with her job in retail, she eventually to leave work to reduce her stress levels. But the financial blow of this left the little family reeling.
There are around 12,000 children across Northern Ireland being brought up by grandparents and other family members because their parents are unable to care for them. Family members are not eligible for the same support as foster carers, which means some kinship carers struggle to make ends meet.
But help is at hand. Kinship Care support families like Caoimhe and Eileen across Northern Ireland. Since 2013 the organisation has received over £1 million of money raised by National Lottery players to support their incredible work.
Jacqueline Williamson, CEO of Kinship Care, said: “Last year we supported 892 kinship carers and 994 children and young people across Northern Ireland, many of whose carers have had to give up work to look after them and many of whom struggle financially.
“The National Lottery funding we have received from the Big Lottery Fund has made a huge impact on our ability to engage and support people,” added Jacqueline.
Caoimhe was directed towards Kinship Care by a friend, and the impact has been profound.
“They have been a great support, not least financially,” said Caoimhe. “The Kinship support groups too have been great because all the carers are in a unique situation as we’re so emotionally invested because the people we look after are our family.
“And Eileen enjoys the social activities they organise, meeting other young people in a similar position to hers.”
Kinship Care also helped to finance art therapy for Eileen, helping her to come to terms with the loss of her mother, and furnished her bedroom when she and Caoimhe got a new house together.
Caoimhe still has to deal with all the usual challenges of raising a teenager – including disagreements over chores! But with the support of Kinship Care and the girls’ wider family, she’s confident about Eileen’s future.
“Since P6 Eileen’s wanted to be an Irish teacher,” said Caoimhe. “I just want her to do as well as she can and be happy.
“Bad things happen in life but you just have to get on with it and we’re lucky to have each other.
“I’ve never reached the point where I simply didn’t know where to turn but no-one knows what’s round the corner and at least I know I have Kinship Care behind me and they’ll move mountains to help.”
To learn more about Kinship Care in Northern Ireland, check out their website: http://www.kinshipcareni.com/