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Norwich charity makes caring connections 

When Sallie Boyd launched a Norwich charity for young carers, she had all the credentials necessary - won through heartfelt experience. Sandie Shirley reports.

As a child, Sallie Boyd cared for her seriously ill mother and her brother who had a heart condition. Years later she relied on her own children to support her when she was diagnosed with ME, fibromyalgia and carpel tunnel syndrome.  
  
Sallie was determined to find support for her eldest child, Connie, who was also struggling to care for her triplet siblings that included two with disabilities. Sallie’s initial plan was to open her front room to a handful of children with a box of Pringles and a video to provide shared respite. It soon paved the beginnings for a far wide plan.  
  
Sixteen years later, despite on-going health issues, Sallie has become a champion for young carers, charting a new course of hope through the ground-breaking charity, Connects & Co, that she launched with a £2,000 grant.
 
Today the charity is based at Catton Grove Community Centre, but for years it has supported hundreds of despairing young carers who have often been lonely, bullied and forgotten. 

“God has given us the gifting to deal with these fragile, delicate lives which are so easily shattered. It is a privilege to build their trust and confidence as God uses us as a bridge of love,” says the Norwich street pastor and mum of six.  
 
Connects & Co began in 2000 for youngsters caring for parents, siblings or both. Today there are six support groups in Norwich and Dereham for children, teenagers and young adults that provide a positive environment for change. Last autumn, the charity began a group for Young Adult Carers (YACs) who are mums but still maintain a caring role for a family member.
 
There are currently 130 club members with a waiting list of 40.  Many bear the stress of caring but are determined not to quit despite the pain and isolation, says Sallie.
 
Their lives are marked with growing confidence and purpose as difficulties are shared with fun, stress-free   activities that include bowling, skating, crafts and residential adventure breaks.
 
Many older members have become uniformed cadets, gaining volunteer certificates for running the tuck shop, helping with newsletters and mentoring younger children.  In addition there are workshops around bullying, self- esteem and sexual and mental health.
 
Sallie recalls the plight of one young carer: “His head was bent under the hood of his sweatshirt and he was unable to look anyone in the eye. During activities he hid under the table but his confidence and hope began to bloom when he joined the cadet scheme and helped with mentoring.”
 
There is also new hope for young mum carers, many of whom were former young carers with Connects. Says Sallie: “God is calling them back during their stories of pain as they look after parents who may have MS, mental health issues or cancer while being a single mum. They are finding friendship and support while joining activities at the group run by a young mum carer who has found faith.” 
 
Sallie’s vision has evolved beyond her wildest dreams. It has won favour, recognition and financial backing as she has networked with outside agencies to help forge a ‘lifeline’ for youngsters and their families.
 
Some £6,500 a month is needed to run the organisation and over the years there has been ‘miracle’ provision with double allocations of funding; peppercorn rent and costs have been waived when money has been tight. Young carers and their parents also raise funds and give sacrificially, explains Sallie.
 
The work, built on prayer and care, is not for the faint-hearted. “We are on call 24 hours, seven days a week and the lives of young carers are extremely challenging. These vulnerable young people often face a murky underworld of incredible darkness.  Every way they turn it seems the pressures of this world try to suck them under but we have an opportunity to be real, open and honest so they know that they are cared for and accepted,” says Sallie.
 
Connects is leaving a vital legacy. “There is a unique plan and purpose for these youngsters’ lives; they have a story and voice to share that can make a difference. Now many have butterfly wings to fly. Some have moved to Scotland, Bristol or Leeds. Others have gone to university or taken-up nursing or caring professions while another is a staff member at Connects,” says Sallie.
 
Meanwhile, daughter, Connie, who was a young carer with her younger brother Oli, is the staff member who inspired and helps lead and provide training for the cadet scheme.
 
Sallie worked tirelessly without a salary for 12 years. Today she is one of three paid employees but there are also 15 volunteers.  
 
Sallie’s faith underscores her vision and stamina. “I would never have managed as a young carer without it; there were no support groups and agencies then,” says Sallie.
 
Today she faces her own health challenges with a stoic resolve despite ME and two serious leg injuries over four years that have meant using a wheelchair for several months. 
 
“I know what it’s like to be out of action so you are totally dependent on the care of others but I have still been able to do the work God calls me to,” says Sallie.
 
www.connectsandco.co.uk
 
Pictured above are young Connects Club members.
 

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