At 15 Emma Hinchliffe was depressed, overweight and suicidal. Now she has just received a national award for her work with obese children. Catherine Scott meets her.
It is hard to imagine Emma Hinchliffe being a withdrawn, overweight bullied teenager with no self-confidence and painfully low self-esteem.
Now this Maths graduate who was told she would amount to nothing chats confidently about her work with young people in Sheffield and the national award she has just won for her volunteer work with obese children through the SHINE project in the city. SHINE works with obese young people aged 10 to 17 and not only focuses on weight loss, but aims to increase their self-esteem and confidence. It is this project, she says, which changed her life.
“When I first went to SHINE I didn’t speak to any one. I had a very low opinion of myself. I’d been badly bullied since I was six and eventually you start to believe what people say about you,” says Emma now 25. “But at SHINE we were all in the same boat and there were people there who believed in me and what I could achieve and so eventually I started to believe it myself.”
It was one of those people, Kath Henderson, the managing director of SHINE, who nominated Emma for the DSC Social Change Award’s Rising Star Award.
“When I first met Emma ten years ago she was a withdrawn child who wouldn’t make eye contact and had terribly low self- esteem,” explains Kath.
“She was badly bullied because of her weight and she was angry and resistant following years of taunts. At SHINE we look at the psychological reason for their weight gain as well as portion control and healthy lifestyle It isn’t just about weight loss, it is about giving these young people self esteem.
“Emma is an inspiration. She has a full time job working with young people and then volunteers in the evening helping children who are in a similar situation to her ten years ago,”
Emma weighed 13 stone when she first went to SHINE.
“I was very shy at school, wore glasses and was overweight,” recalls Emma. “I would do anything to get out of going outside at break as I was worried I would be bullied. So I didn’t run around like the other children. I would go straight home after school and watch television or play computer games and so the weight started to pile on. I didn’t like PE at school as I was never picked and was always made to feel bad about myself and so things got worse. As I gained weight it got harder to do things physically. I would get breathless and struggled to do things.”
Obese children are at risk of the same diseases as obese adults – type 2 diabetes, joint problems and heart conditions.
“My life was pretty miserable and I was unhappy with the way I looked, I felt as if no-one understood and things got so bad I wanted to kill myself.”
It was Emma’s form teacher who suggested she and a couple of friends attend a pilot project in Sheffield. That pilot project was SHINE.
“I don’t think I would ever have gone if I had been on my own.
“It is hard enough as a teenager going to somewhere new, but when you are overweight it is even harder.”
Although she didn’t speak to anyone for the first few weeks of the 12 week programme, Emma soon realised that she was surrounded by children of the same age with the same issues as herself. She started to open up and take an active part in the healthy living and exercise classes.
“Over time Emma lost five stone and found herself again,” says Kath. She also trained to become a buddy, helping other children join the programme and giving them support in the light of her own experience.
Emma says: “I felt I wanted to give something back. I know what these children are going through, they have no support or people to give them confidence in themselves.”
She then became a classroom assistant and at 18 she started her first degree in Maths at Sheffield University while still working at SHINE as a volunteer and training to deliver SHINE courses.
On completion of her degree she undertook a second degree, this time in youth work, and now works to give vulnerable young people across Sheffield a voice.
She is now a director of SHINE and is passionate about the programme and also using the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme to help build up young people’s skills and confidence.
“I am now a sport facilitator and help to co-ordinate the DOE award scheme. I am training for my gold, not bad for someone who couldn’t even walk without feeling breathless.
“It is an honour to get the award, but I don’t seek recognition. It is just nice to see the young people go through the programme and come out with more self-esteem and confidence which will hopefully help them in later life. I would not be here if it wasn’t for SHINE, but sadly there aren’t enough programmes like SHINE out there.”
While there are more than 300 projects working with obese and overweight children, both Kath and Emma feel there needs to be more co-ordination.
“Some focus very much on the weight, where as at SHINE we also look at the psychological reasons why these children are obese,” says Kath who says SHINE is now seeing an increasing number of young children.
“We are seeing more referrals for children aged six to nine. We are also seeing young people with a BMI (body mass index) of 45 – that is dangerous for an adult.” The recommended BMI for an adult is 24. But with success stories like Emma and with the help of SHINE and other programmes the future is starting to look a little brighter.
• SHINE is a not-for-profit limited company based in Sheffield that aims to help obese young people aged 10 to 17, although they are helping children as young as nine.
SHINE was established in 2003 as a pilot 12-week programme to help children and young people not only lose weight but also increase in confidence and self-esteem.
With 22 volunteers, more than 200 families across Sheffield are currently being helped by the programme.
The DSC Social Change Awards celebrate individuals and organisations committed to making a positive impact on society.