The High Sheriff of South Yorkshire is backing the Yorkshire Post’s Give Young Carers a Break appeal. Julie Kenny tells Emily Heward how growing up as a young carer in Sheffield spurred her to success.
JULIE Kenny learned to ride a bike for the first time last year.
“Just to have the wind blowing in your hair and to feel carefree, I felt like a kid,” says the successful businesswoman and High Sheriff of South Yorkshire.
That feeling was a luxury she didn’t have growing up in poverty as a young carer in Hillsborough.
“I became old very young and I didn’t have the childhood you want for your children,” she says.
Her dad left when she was five and her mother was an “incapable” parent who was hopeless with money.
“Even as early as seven I used to go to the local shop to organise credit for my family so we could eat,” she recalls.
“I used to go and ask if we could put the shopping on tick. Most of the time I was successful in getting a quarter of margarine, potatoes and bread, and that’s mostly what we lived on.
“Finances were always a big issue for us. We just never had any money.”
Things got worse when her mother met a new partner, a heavy drinker, and alcohol-fuelled rows filled the weekends.
Amidst the chaos, it fell to her to keep the house in order and look after her four siblings, particularly her brother Michael, who was born when she was 10.
“I’d look after him before and after school and at the same time do all the housework, cooking and cleaning,” she recalls.
“I used to do my homework if I’d got some, then housework after that. That was daily life.
“In some ways I was being the mother of the home when my mum didn’t take those responsibilities properly.”
Financial worries continued to plague the family into her teens – and she had to pick up the pieces.
“If somebody knocked on the door and my mum didn’t know who it was, you had to go and lie and say she wasn’t in,” she says. “You just never knew what was going to happen.
“At 15 we were due to be evicted and I went to my housing association and saw my dad to see how we could sort it. I used to go every week to take the money to the housing authority.”
Despite the huge burden of her responsibilities, it never occurred to her to sorry for herself.
“I got an inherent feeling of responsibility and I just felt that it had to be done. I never had a thought that I shouldn’t be doing it,” says the 55-year-old.
It was her mother’s turbulent relationship with her partner that caused her the most anguish.
“The fallout of the problems at the weekend with the drinking and fighting and the police coming round and trying to sort out the aftermath – that used to get me down,” she says.
She also felt ashamed of the financial mess they were in.
“I was one of only two in my class that had free school meals,” she remembers.
“At the time I hated it. They used to make you go to the front of the class and pick up your meal ticket. But if I didn’t have that, it was me going home to cook so you never really knew what you were going to have that night.”
Her duties caused her to miss a lot of schooling but she fought to stay on for an extra year to complete a secretarial course and got her first job as a typist at 16.
But with no recognition or support then for young carers and so much to juggle, she snapped under the strain and suffered a breakdown at 17.
She spent her 18th birthday in hospital. It was then she vowed to turn her life around.
“It was an absolute turning point,” she says.
“Thereafter I left Sheffield with £45 in my purse and caught a train to Cornwall. I blamed Sheffield instead of my family.
“On the train I arranged an interview long-distance about how I was going to change my life – and I did.”
She got a job as a junior legal secretary and went on to train as a lawyer, moving back to South Yorkshire after qualifying to marry her then-partner, Paul.
Just five weeks after their wedding he was made redundant – but instead of sinking they seized the opportunity to launch their own security business, specialising in intruder alarms.
“I didn’t have any money but I had a house, so I sold it and then we created Pyronix,” she says.
“I had a full-time job for three years as well as working full-time in the business.”
It was a gamble and a hard slog – but it paid off. Mrs Kenny left the legal profession in 1989 to focus on the company and 25 years on from its launch, Pyronix is an award-winning business with a turnover of around £15m.
Now a highly-respected member of Britain’s business community, Mrs Kenny was awarded a CBE in 2002 for her contribution to business and industry in Yorkshire.
From being a commissioner with the UK Commission for Employment and Skills to the first female chair and director of the British Security Industry Association, she has held a number of esteemed positions – but none more so than that of High Sheriff, to which she was appointed in April.
The office dates back to Saxon times, when the Shire Reeve was responsible to the king for maintaining law and order.
Duties nowadays include attending Royal visits, supporting high court judges and assisting charities in the county.
The role is a source of huge pride to her.
“I didn’t know anybody that had risen to such an honourable position from a council house,” she says.
She now credits those beginnings with giving her the drive to succeed.
“I decided as a child that I wasn’t going to live the life I lived if I had children,” she says – and she has made good on that vow bringing up Oliver, 23, Laurence, 20, and Charlotte, 18.
“You are determined to do that. You want to give them an education and the right values and the right care,” she says.
Mrs Kenny, who is now divorced and lives in North Anston with partner Iain, made peace with her mother long before she died a few years ago.
“In her later life she really changed,” she says.
“She got a job and really enjoyed it. She got a flat and did it up, paid all her bills and had money in her purse for the first time in her life. She had a happier life in the end.”
Now she wants other young carers to know they do not have to be held back by their circumstances.
“You don’t have to do what I’ve done to be successful,” she says.
“I fought to be a shorthand typist and stay on at college for an extra year and if I’d done nothing else, I would have been successful because I succeeded where none of my peers had.
“For the young carers of today there will come a time when they can make some decisions about how they live their own life.
“Keep confident that that day will come, even though it may seem miles away at the moment. It will come and you can achieve your own aims and aspirations.”