Young carers have had the chance to learn about storytelling from an award-winning author, thanks to an initiative led by the First Campus Team at Cardiff University.
The Access an Author workshops, presented in partnership with Literature Wales, took place over three months with a group of pupils from Tonyrefail Community School in Rhondda Cynon Taf.
Children’s Laureate Wales Eloise Williams led the virtual sessions, giving the group the chance to choose which of her books they wanted to read and what activities they wanted to do during the live workshops. They chose to discuss her novel, Seaglass, using it as a basis for their own creative writing.
Gethin, in year seven, who took part in the project, is a carer for his mum Vicky. She has Pompe disease, a genetic condition that causes muscle weakness. Vicky was diagnosed at 18, a few months before Gethin was born.
He said: "Sometimes she falls down, so I’m there to help her up. I do stuff around the house, like washing up or cleaning. I keep her company."
Of the Access an Author course, he said: "I like the sessions. It’s a little drop out of my routine. It’s given me time to see new people after school. Me and my mum have been reading the book together."
Mum Vicky said: "Gethin helps me a lot when my husband is at work. He’s always there to cheer me up. If I’m having a bad day, he knows. He’ll just come down and give me a cwtch.
"He’s enjoyed talking to Eloise and the other children. He’s been asking lots of questions, such as about how she got inspiration for the book. He’s made lots of friends through doing it. It’s encouraged him with his reading too."
Sophie, who is a sibling carer, also enjoyed taking time out to immerse herself in the book and meet new friends. The year seven pupil supports her brother Ethan, who is in year eight and has autism. She often spends school breaks with him and helps to calm him when he feels anxious.
She said: "It was nice talking to a proper author because I’d never done that before. I’d like to be able to write a book in the future. I like being creative.
"Me and Ethan are really close. If he’s feeling stressed in school I’ll take him on walks. When he does his art I’ll sit with him and do it too. We are really close."
Mum Nicola said: "Sophie also has a younger brother and sister with additional needs so life can be pretty hectic for us. Sophie is very caring and mature and helps out a lot. She’s very mothering, particularly to Ethan - they’ve always had a great bond.
"She tries to make other people happy, so it’s been nice for her to have a bit of time that’s just hers. She’s talked to me a lot about the book. It’s really given her a confidence boost about school."
Children’s Laureate Wales Eloise Williams said: "The past year has been incredibly challenging for young people, not least for young carers. Reading is an excellent way of escaping those pressures and sharing stories has been such an interesting and positive way to have fun for all of us.
"My role in this has been to help young people to recognise themselves as being an integral part of the reading and storytelling world. The power of words is something they already have at their fingertips. I help them to realise that books are accessible, that authors are just people, that the magic of stories is there for them to own. It has been a privilege to work with such a creative, funny, smart and imaginative group of young readers and writers."
Assistant Headteacher at Tonyrefail Community School Cara Marvelley said: "We always strive to provide opportunities for our pupils to engage in reading for pleasure but perhaps this year more than ever we have been aware of the many benefits that reading has, impacting so powerfully on language development and academic progress but also on creativity, empathy and well-being.
"Those benefits have been very evident throughout the Access An Author project. Our students have been engaged, inspired and have grown in confidence each session. They have valued the opportunity to work with someone like Eloise but also to form connections with each other through this unique literary experience."
The success of this pilot project has led to it being extended and offered to other young carers in schools in South East Wales.
First Campus Officer Catrin Jones said: "Young carers are one of First Campus’ priority groups, and we knew that lockdown was especially challenging for our young learners who had caring responsibilities at home. With in-person activities suspended, we were looking for a way to create short accessible breaks where our young carers could meet peers online and engage in an activity that offered an escape from the present.
"We thought a reading project might offer the perfect solution, and when Literature Wales nominated Eloise Williams, we knew it was going to be a fantastic project. We’re delighted to be able to offer the sessions to more young people in the near future."
First Campus is the South East Wales Reaching Wider Partnership. The partnership consists of all higher education and further education institutions in South East Wales. It exists to widen access to higher education by tackling barriers to entry, progression and success in higher education.