Life story work mind map by Ruth Mary Johnson

Celebrating each other’s dreams and aspirations: adapting Creative Life Story Work for care leavers

Sitting here in front of a blank Word document, and starting to write this blog about my experiences delivering two Creative Life Story Work pilots for care leavers in South Tyneside and Darlington, reminds me of how I felt when I started the work. Where to begin? What are the knowns? What are the unknowns? All of the questions and the invitation and pressure of a blank page!

I had initially responded to a call out within Blue Cabin to help do some thinking about what Creative Life Story Work for care leavers could possibly look like and the first step was to meet with representatives from South Tyneside and Darlington and I had a whole bunch of questions. Who might the young adults be? What they might be interested in? How many sessions and for how long? How is this similar and or different to the All About Me work I have been delivering with young people aged 5-16 years old? What hopes and aspirations did they have about the pilot? This meeting was so informative in making some of the unknowns more known, and we agree that the sessions needed to:

  • Help build confidence
  • Encourage working with and sharing ideas and support with peers
  • Look towards future aspirations
  • Be flexible in the approach
  • Be fun!

Following this meeting, I was able to work with fellow Blue Cabin Associate Artist, Nic Golightly, who was beginning to work with care leavers at Deerbolt Prison on the Creative Aid project. Our creative buddying time together allowed us to forge some key principles that we could work within when planning our work with the young adults we were about to meet.

We discussed the key differences from All About Me being how the key relationships within the group were the group themselves rather than the young person and their trusted adult. This development of the power of the group within the sessions felt so important to help nurture the interdependence that was being encouraged from the Local Authority perspective. And so, All About Me became All About Us.

We then had the opportunity to meet with an amazing group of young researchers, all care leavers who had worked with Blue Cabin previously to shape the Creative Life Story Work evaluation process, to share our initial thoughts and get honest feedback on the ideas. This was such a vital part of the development stage as this group were so thoughtful in their feedback. A key piece of advice they gave us was to ensure that we made the sessions fun and allowed the opportunity to be creative: “You are never too old to play”. They also highlighted the importance of food in the sessions. This helped to underpin our ethos and also helped us to think practically about the sessions.

Within this two group pilot, we were planning a six week model of 1.5 hour sessions on an evening with South Tyneside (very much like the All About Me model) and a three week model of three hour sessions with Darlington. When thinking about the themes of the sessions, we used our principles, especially those of being future-focused and encouraging the power of the group to help refine what the themes would be:

In terms of planning the content of the sessions, I certainly went on a journey! We decided that in order to be responsive to the groups we would not use the All About Me model of pre-preparing packs for each session. Instead, I would create a kit for the first sessions with a range of stationery and useful materials that we could work with on any activity that felt responsive to the groups. I had initially decided to step away from the activities that I do with All About Me (creating a mini theatre and developing a puppet show) but after a meeting with Richard Rose (from Therapeutic Life Story Work International) and discussing with the wider Blue Cabin team, I felt encouraged to not throw away this idea as it provided a useful metaphor to work within. And I was reminded of the young researcher’s wise words: “You are never too old to play.” Working with the group as storytellers and theatremakers allows each of us to tell the story we want to tell about our lives and be the director of the action. So whilst the definitive activities were not determined, I knew I would be working within the metaphor of theatre.

So, I no longer had a blank page! I had a plan but was ready to step away from it and respond to the needs and interests of the group.

And what groups they were! It was a total pleasure to work with the incredibly talented young adults in South Tyneside and Darlington! Every person came to the sessions with a willingness and openness to give it a go. We explained that these were pilot projects and encouraged feedback on the sessions throughout. The differing models of three sessions and six sessions both worked well but both groups articulated that they would like “more sessions” and for the sessions to be longer. We were able to respond to this with the South Tyneside group and extend the sessions to two hours. This really highlighted one of the elements of difference between All About Me and All About Us – the pacing of activity. Each activity that we did took much longer than it had when delivering with younger people. Nic had also found the same in her Creative Aid delivery. Taking time over a piece of work felt important for everyone and the level of detail and care taken was impressive and powerful. As I am someone who also has lots of backup activity and am planned for all eventualities, it reminded me to slow down and enjoy the creative process.

The support of staff within the sessions was essential for the smooth running and logistical elements but also for safeguarding and providing emotional support. The role of the Personal Advisor from each Local Authority was key in this and I had the pleasure of working with Faye, in Darlington, who knew all the individuals so well moved heaven and earth to enable everyone to access the sessions and encourage involvement. In South Tyneside, we worked with Susan, a Pastoral Support Worker (in a similar model to All About Me), who didn’t know the group prior to the sessions but was incredible in her care, enthusiasm and dedication to following everything up. Both Faye and Susan were amazing at getting stuck into the creative activities and this was vital in the running of the sessions.

The storyboarding activities which led to shadow puppet shows of the story of everyone’s future worked really well and the performance of these was the culmination of each of the pilots. The group were an audience for each other’s dreams and aspirations. We ended the final sessions with shows and award ceremonies with everyone applauding each other – a real celebration of the group and who we are within it.

The final sessions also gave us an opportunity to reflect on All About Us as a whole with the following feedback given across the two groups:

“Good atmosphere, fun.”
“Fun, had a good laugh.”
“Everything was so good.”
“It was really good. I loved the arts and crafts, would love to do it again.”
‘It has made me get up on a Saturday and not waste the day.”
It’s something to do and then I am ready for the rest of the weekend.”
“I loved being able to express myself through art.”
“It’s been a really good way of looking at things differently and in a relaxed way.”
“Some of it’s been hard stuff but hasn’t felt hard – like saying what I am proud of about myself.”
“Good way of discussing feelings.”

In our last debrief, I asked Faye what she thought the group had got out of the sessions and she said, “It has made them think about themselves, things they are proud of and things they want in the future.”

When thinking about any tips for others about to embark on working in a similar way, I keep coming back to where I started. As an ode to the blank page, the first activity with each group was to fill their first page in their notebooks with a “don’t look down portrait” of each other where the only rule is that you don’t look down at your page. The results of this are hilariously messy and the activity underpins the ethos of giving it a go, celebrating our mistakes and creating something out of them and takes away the pressure and instead invites the experimentation of a creative process. And here I am reminded of where we began but filled with the wonderful words the groups gave as feedback from the sessions and fuelled by their willingness to fill their blank pages with their exciting futures:

And in another full circle, I am taking this learning into my work with Nic for Creative Aid and the blank pages are filling up with brilliant things there too!

Thank you Ruth for sharing this brilliant insight into adapting Creative Life Story Work for care leavers.

Find out more about Creative Life Story Work and the All About Me sessions which Ruth mentions here, and take a look at some of our resources, which you can use to inform direct work with young people, here: