SUNDERLAND CARES: Friendships that will last a lifetime

Christmas is a happy occasion when people are together.
Christmas is a happy occasion when people are together.
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There is no formula for friendship. It is forged in many ways – whispering at the back of a classroom, sharing gossip at the coffee machine or laughing in the pub.

And some of the greatest friendships are created out of necessity.

The lives of Binti Cole and Gabby Turner became intertwined in such circumstances, but what started out as a difficult relationship has developed into a parental bond that will last a lifetime.

Firm friends, they finish each other’s sentences, share fashion tips and, for the duration of our conversation, aim the sort of humorous digs at each other that only close friends can.

Binti’s is one of only 13 homes (from the end of December) in Sunderland who open up their homes to young people leaving foster care or hostel accommodation.

And the duo is as committed to their community as much as they are to each other, dressing up each Christmas Eve to deliver gifts and goodwill to friends and neighbours…hence the picture.

Binti’s is one of only 13 homes in Sunderland who open up their homes to young people leaving foster care or hostel accommodation.

The Sunderland resident, 49, has been offering “supported lodgings” for Sunderland City Council’s Support to Independence service for the past five years, during which time she has provided a haven for six young people making the transition from living in care to becoming independent adults.

“I just want to provide a better life for someone,” said Binti when asked about her motivation for doing what she does.

“I want to help someone who hasn’t had it easy and I want to watch them grow and develop and help them as best I can. No matter what they are like when they come here I make sure that they do not leave with low self esteem and have the life skills required to make a go of things when they go out on their own.”

Persuaded to consider supported lodgings by her sister initially, who also provides a home for young people leaving full-time care, Binti contacted and built a relationship with Laura Mills, Sunderland City Council supported lodgings officer, who provided the doorway into a service that would change her life.

Binti is quick to admit it’s one of the most fulfilling things she has ever done.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of all the kids who have been with me,” said the mother of one son. “Of course we have our dramas and ups and downs, just like all families do, but we work our way through it and help each other and will always find a solution.

“I keep in touch with most of the kids and they’re all fantastic. I love them and can’t tell you how satisfying it is to see them making something of their lives after they leave.”

“Laura Mills provided so much valuable support and guidance and without her I may have missed out on such fulfilling and enriching experience.”

Binti’s shares her home with 21-year old Gabby, who moved in over three years ago, but to call her a “resident” undermines the special bond shared between Gabby and the ebullient Binti.

Gabby, 21, who is currently in further education and making plans for university where she intends to study linguistics, a situation she couldn’t have dreamed she’d be in just a few years ago.

Currently studying at Sunderland College, Gabby, 21, is making plans for university where she intends to study linguistics, a situation she couldn’t have dreamed she’d be in just a few years ago.

“I’m originally from Essex,” says Gabby. “I came to Sunderland on my own when I was 15 to stay with a friend. Without going into details, I had a ‘fight or flight’ situation in Essex and it was better for me to get away from there.

“At first I lived with someone I knew, but I soon went into foster care and lived in a hostel for a while before I met Binti when I turned 18.”

Gabby freely admits that she didn’t make life easy, initially testing Binti’s patience and intentionally trying to “push my luck”.

“I think I knew Binti was trying to help me, but my first instinct was to push her away. I wanted to press her buttons and looking back I was horrible for the first three months. But Binti was always there with a hug and helped me break down my problems and slowly, as we approached Christmas, I realised that this might just be the woman I needed in my life at that time…and she definitely was.”

Binti is a firm believer in the benefits of a loving home and creating a safe haven for her “kids”, as she calls them.

She said: “It takes time and effort. It sometimes takes patience and it takes perseverance, but you have to remember that some of these kids are not used to love or being loved and can be suspicious of anyone offering them something for nothing.

“However, you take things at their own pace and keep providing that support or a friendly ear to listen to their problems and slowly but surely you start to build trust and out of that real progress can be made.”

With all the young people who have found a loving home at Binti’s house, there has been a steady integration process. Introductions are made between the supported lodgings provider and young person, these develop into meetings, days together and eventually sleepovers.

Gabby added: “Once I got over that initial suspicion, things have only got better. The main thing that living with Binti has helped me with is providing me with the confidence to know I can go to college or university.

“When we stand together in the middle of the room and tell each other ‘you’re the best thing since sliced bread!’ – it’s a laugh, but it’s our little reminder of how far we’ve come together.”

With a passion for languages, Gabby spent three months in Thailand teaching English in a local school, something she intends to revisit once her studies are complete.

She credits Binti as the main influence for her turning her life around.

She said: “My mother and Binti are really good friends and when my mother took ill, Binti brought her up to Sunderland and looked after her so I could continue my studies at college – that’s the sort of person she is.

“The supported lodgings service needs more like her. It is a service that deserves a lot more attention and credit than it currently gets because it is helping people at a crucial stage of their lives – teenagers are often overlooked in care because most foster carers will be looking for babies or toddlers, not teenagers. When some get to the supported lodgings stage, they may feel neglected or unloved – people like Binti make sure that is not the case.”

The service is overseen by Sunderland Children’s Services and managed by the Support to Independence team, which currently has eight young people housed in supported lodgings. It supports young people aged 16-21 and the service has ambitions to double its lodgings provision.

Sunderland City Council portfolio holder for Children’s Services, Coun Louise Farthing, said: “Finding homes for young people who are leaving care services is an incredibly important job and it’s fantastic when a positive connection is made, as is clearly the case with Binti and Gabby.

“A loving, caring home is the best launch-pad for life and we require more of them to help our city’s young adults make that vitally important first step into adulthood and independence. We need more people to be like Binti.”

Find out more on supported lodgings, contact Laura Mills via supported.lodgings@sunderland.gov.uk