SIX-YEAR-OLD Jack Mentlak flashes a bashful smile when asked why he likes to look after his grandmother.
“Because I love her,” he says.
“And because she’s poorly.”
Jack, one of the youngest carers in Yorkshire, has lived with his grandparents, Jackie and Tony Mentlak, for most of his life.
His grandmother, 60, herself once a young carer, suffers from severe rheumatoid arthritis and has survived a number of strokes.
But her most recent health battle has been with cancer and four months ago she had lifesaving surgery to remove a tumour from her nose.
Throughout her ordeal, Jack has been her rock, helping with everything from the housework to the care of his younger brother, Charlie, four.
“I wash up and polish. I help grandad finish his jobs. Sometimes we put pictures up and do the gardening,” he says. “It’s fun.”
Mrs Mentlak says: “Jack is just a little dream.
“Sometimes when I get up on a morning I can’t move and he gets himself dressed, he gets Charlie’s clothes on. It just helps tremendously.
“He says: ‘You sit down, grandmother and have a rest’. He helps with everything, even at school they say how caring he is.
“He’s such a sentimental little boy, I love him to bits. It means the world to me him helping me.”
Mr Mentlak, 63, a plumbing and heating engineer, adds: “He’s very special.
“It’s genuine – he does it all voluntarily.”
The couple fought for full custody of Jack and Charlie to save them from being put into care because of their mother’s drug and alcohol problems.
The boys’ father John – Mr and Mrs Mentlak’s son – is unable to look after them owing to mental illness, but the 35-year-old sees them nearly every day.
“He once had a fit in our kitchen and Jack was the first one there, turning him over and patting his back,” Mr Mentlak says.
His wife adds: “He’ll tell people his dad’s poorly but he’s getting better.”
Going to Barnardo’s Willow Young Carers’ Service in Leeds every week has helped Jack to understand and open up about his loved ones’ illnesses.
It’s also a place he can just have fun like any other six-year-old. It’s a marvellous place,” says Mrs Mentlak.
“For children whose parents are ill, it’s very stressful for them and they’ve explained it all to him without him getting upset.
“It’s just amazing and I’m really thankful for what they do here.”
Mrs Mentlak understands the service’s value better than most.
Her father died when she was seven, leaving her to care for her mother when she later fell ill with cancer. She died when Mrs Mentlak was 15.
“There was nothing like Willow then. There was nobody to talk to,” she says.
“Nobody knows what you are going through. You just don’t have a childhood.”
While taking on two boisterous little boys has not been easy for the couple, Mr and Mrs Mentlak wouldn’t change it for the world.
“Life wouldn’t be worth living without them,” says Mr Mentlak.
“I consider ourselves to be very lucky to have them. They are a joy.”