Sanna Mahmood is in her final year at university. She credits her achievements to the support of her foster carers. Laura Drysdale reports.
It takes a village to raise a child, so the proverb goes - and it strikes a chord with Huddersfield student Sanna Mahmood, whose foster parents gave her the confidence to continue her education beyond the schoolyard.
Whilst many young people around her were experiencing life away from their loved ones for the first time, by the time Sanna began university in 2016, she had been separated from her birth family for six years.
The 24-year-old was placed into foster care with Kirklees Council when she was 14, following a breakdown in her home life.
Now studying for a degree whilst dedicating her spare time to supporting other foster children and care leavers, Sanna says what she has achieved has only been possible with the support of her foster carers.
“I’d go so far as to say that on some level being in care was a bit like being on holiday,” she says. “Having come from a very conservative background, my home life provided little opportunity for me to broaden my horizons or achieve academically.
“Fostering was something that opened up a whole other world to me - a world where I was encouraged by my foster carers to experience different people and places and to do well for myself.
“I actually learned the best life lessons and for the first time I had people around me who believed in me, which really boosted my confidence. Without that help and encouragement I doubt I would ever have made the decision to continue with my education.”
Through Kirklees Council, Sanna took an apprenticeship in children and young people, which enabled her to apply for her degree course.
She also completed a year of work placement in various local authority departments, which helped her decide what career pathway she wanted to take.
She is now in her final year at the University of Huddersfield studying Health and Community Development and hopes to work in Human Resources.
“For any child who is placed into care it’s a shock to the system and this can have a lasting impact,” Sanna says. “In my case I inevitably felt some anger and a sense of abandonment, feelings that have never completely gone away. That said, I also felt that ultimately, I got what I needed, when I needed it.”
Sanna has combined her studies with working with the council to help other foster children and care leavers, offering advice, support and skills training.
For the past six years, she has volunteered with its Children in Care team, a forum for fostered children to share their experiences, discuss any issues and ask for additional support.
She also works at a council drop-in centre, a safe space for people to meet other care leavers, prepare a hot meal, take a shower and access IT facilities and council services.
There, she helps run courses geared towards independent living, such as healthy eating, running a household and communication skills.
“Having received so much support both during and after my time in care I felt passionately about giving something back,” she says. She hopes by doing so, other care leavers will also follow their aspirations, no matter how difficult at start to life they may have had.
“I feel it’s important that those leaving care know that there is help and support out there. Empowering young people to take control of their lives makes a huge difference as it can give them the confidence they need when applying for a job or accessing further education. Others like me, who have benefited from these services, have gone on to mentor other care leavers.”
“People like Sanna are a shining example of what can be achieved when a child is placed in a nurturing environment where they feel safe and valued,” says Andy Quinlan, acting fostering service manager at the council. “Despite a difficult start to life she can be proud that she has gone on to become a success in her own right and an excellent role model to the other children and care leavers that she continues to help.”
Whilst Sanna is committed to helping foster children and care leavers, she maintains that a solid grounding during a child’s formative years are equally vital. She says that this is something that can only happen if more foster carers come forward and is urging people to consider taking up the profession.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child and no other profession has the power to influence and change a vulnerable child’s life for the better like fostering does,” she says.
“You become a huge part of each other’s lives so the positive changes that can be achieved are massive. Every child deserves the best start to life but some are at risk of missing out because there simply aren’t enough foster carers, particularly for teenagers, many of whom are just crying out for a positive role model.
“Without caring, understanding people who were willing to take me in, where would I be?
“I feel lucky in that I had amazing foster carers who encouraged me go out into the world and find myself, but leaving care was the strangest feeling, because I had no birth family to turn to.
“However, it was around this time that I realised that I’d become part of another family; one made up of my foster carers, their friends who fostered, as well as the children in their care.
“They are still a big part of my life today so it gives me great comfort to know that this is a family that I can always rely on and call my own.”
Kirklees Council said its team of more than 200 foster families play a vital role in ensuring every child in its care feels as supported as Sanna.
Right now, the authority is looking for long-term foster carers for 30 children.
It is holding a drop-in information event at the John Smith’s Stadium, Stadium Way, Huddersfield on Tuesday, February 12 between 5.30pm and 7.30pm, when those interested can talk to experienced foster carers.
To contact its fostering team, call 0800 389 0086 or visit www.kirklees.gov.uk/fostering
Foster carers come from all ages and cultural backgrounds and they can be with or without children and in employment, retired or on benefits.