Tim Bunting, head of fundraising and communications for CHICKS, on how the charity is helping disadvantaged children.
It can be difficult for charities to measure their effectiveness but CHICKS, which stands for ‘Country Holidays for Inner City Kids’, gets hard proof in the post every day in the form of thank you letters from its grateful beneficiaries.
‘It was the best week ever as I made new friends and experienced new things and adventures,’ wrote one child.
‘The [CHICKS] workers spoilt me, cared for me, praised me, which helped me to build my confidence and helped me to grow as a person. I realised that in order for me to be happy, I have to be myself,’ said another.
CHICKS organises and runs breaks for disadvantaged children who would not otherwise get to enjoy a holiday; some have never had a holiday. The children, aged between 8 and 15, are from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Some live in poverty or have been neglected or abused.
Others have lost their mum or dad or become carers for their own parent(s). The one thing they all have in common is that they have little, if any, chance to just be children.
CHICKS gives them that opportunity. A visit to one of the charity’s two centres – the Coastal Retreat in Cornwall and the Moorland Retreat in Devon – provides an environment that is free from fear and responsibility, where children can play, make friends and try new activities. A typical five-day visit will include horse riding, team games, swimming, climbing and a day out at an adventure park.
‘Their lives might be their home and school, and that will be it,’ says Tim Bunting, head of fundraising and communications for CHICKS. ‘We’ve had children from Plymouth who have never been to the beach. One little boy this summer was convinced a sheep was a polar bear – with us, they experience the outdoors for the first time.’
Food is also a big part of the holiday; Bunting says that some of the children don’t eat well at home. At CHICKS they get home-cooked food, from wraps and soups to roasts and comfort puddings such as spotted dick.
Perhaps the most special visits take place at Christmas. The children arrive on 23 December for a traditional festive celebration. ‘We go to the pantomime, there’s a carol service, the children meet Father Christmas, they get a Christmas stocking – it’s the works,’ he says.
Professionals who work with children, such as teachers, social workers and GPs, refer children to the charity. People who work in this arena become accustomed to emotionally charged situations but Yvonne Matthews, a student support manager and referrer at President Kennedy School in Coventry, says that just thinking of what CHICKS achieves during a five day visit still brings her up in goose bumps after six years of working with the charity. The school has sent 50 children to CHICKS during that time.
‘It’s a roller coaster of emotions,’ she says. ‘The friendships our children make in that short space of time are unbelievable.’
Leaving after a stress-free week can be upsetting for some of the children but CHICKS sends them off with a memory bag of photos and Freepost envelopes so that they can keep in touch with staff. ‘When children write to us, we always write back,’ says Bunting. ‘We send out 3,600 letters and 1,200 Christmas parcels in a year.’
Josie Goldthorpe was 12 when she was first referred for a holiday with CHICKS. She spent her childhood years caring for her mother, who suffers from myalgic encephalopathy (ME). Her mother was nervous about Josie and her sister going out and the majority of their time outside school was spent in the house. ‘We didn’t get a lot of sunlight,’ says Josie. ‘We did the washing and cooking and my Mum could barely walk, so we had to help her move around.’
Going on a CHICKS holiday was a revelation. ‘You can’t imagine the sense of freedom. I could be me and not worry about the caring responsibilities at home,’ she says. ‘I went horse riding for the first time. I was very nervous but with all the encouragement I got on and it was spectacular.
Josie is 19 now and studying sociology at Cardiff University. She is so grateful to CHICKS for the experiences and confidence she gained during her breaks that she now returns regularly to help out as a volunteer. ‘The volunteers I met there while on holiday have been the real mentors for my life,’ she says. ‘They gave me so much – now I want to give back something.’
CHICKS doesn’t receive any government funding, instead relying on donations and the help of 450 volunteers each year to keep its valuable work going. The St. James’s Place Foundation, the charitable arm of St. James’s Place Wealth Management, has been instrumental in helping CHICKS fund a new centre, which is currently in its pilot phase. It has matched the funds that CHICKS has raised towards the cost of buying and renovating an old property in the Peak District, resulting in a £770,000 donation from the Foundation towards Daleside.
‘St. James’s Place helped kick-start the move towards opening a new centre,’ says Bunting. ‘This provided the project with credibility and opened the door to other sources of funding. We wouldn’t have Daleside without the support of St. James’s Place.’
The new centre will make it much easier for up to 600 children a year from the Midlands and the North to take advantage of the opportunities offered by CHICKS. The charity hopes to open a second centre within an hour’s drive of Daleside by 2020.
The impact on those who attend the centres can be significant. Bunting says one boy, who had been at risk of joining a gang and falling into crime, now appreciates the point of staying on track and working in school. ‘Other children have said we have shown them how to love their own children, and even saved their lives,’ he says. ‘But it’s very simple what we do – giving children time and experiences that will probably stay with them for the rest of their lives.’