As I reach my 20 years’ service with Calon Cymru Fostering (Pathway Care before) I have found myself reflecting a lot. Lockdown has allowed that!..I joined this agency whilst I was in my late 20’s! To be honest, I don’t really know where the last 20 years have gone. I worked for the Local Authority after qualifying as a Social Worker and I have to say it was a baptism by fire. However, an experience I have never regretted. I worked alongside some of the best Social Workers and Managers in the Local Authority and learnt so much so quickly. In hindsight, it was my Local Authority experience that prepared me for the fostering role.
When I joined the agency, I really had to prove myself. It is all Sharon Thomas’s fault (Operations Manager), she got me an interview. 20 years ago – it was not easy to move into a fostering role particularly given my age plus I only had a few years of post-qualifying experience under my belt. Upon reflection, I had to prove myself a lot. For those of you that know me well I do not give up easily, I always had a bit of fire in my belly….and if you ask the company founders probably my mouth too!
On my first day, I had a puncture, I had planned to get up super early and be prepared. That didn’t really go to plan and when I arrived, I remember one of the company owners standing there looking at me suspiciously and tapping his watch and I shouted “look at my hands they are covered in oil, I had to change the tyre!” I started a few months after Barrie Lewis (Recruitment Manager). We still laugh now about how he always knew what mood I was in by the way in which I typed. If I was angry it was loud apparently. I always used to say, “No Barrie, I learnt to type on an old school typewriter, OK!”
The other challenge, of course, was moving over to the Independent sector (or as it was known at the time…. ‘moving over to the dark side’). It was an easy decision for me in the sense that I knew the agency as I had already placed children with them. I learnt quite quickly that the standard of care in this agency was pretty special. That is why I joined. I saw the difference that was being made with the children I had placed, but there was also the level of support that the Foster Carers received. Carers were seen as playing an integral role and treated as professionals. The level of support was extremely high.
I started as a Supervising Social Worker; my ‘patch’ was Rhondda Cynon Taff. The agency was very small then with only a handful of Foster Carers. My role was to assist in recruiting and assessing Foster Carers and to basically grow my own caseload. I used my experience from child protection in assessing prospective applicants, talking to them about what to expect and how they could make a difference. I started to enjoy the role more and more – particularly when I started to supervise Foster Carers.
As a young Social Worker, I learnt so much from the Foster Carers I worked with. Always in awe of how they would treat each day as a different day. I would visit Foster Carers who were dealing with some extreme behavioural challenges and saw the secondary trauma they were experiencing. I would return two weeks later and see that they had already made a difference and achieved progress, and it was pretty amazing to be a part of that. But what impressed me the most about Foster Carers, was this innate drive to not only want to change children’s lives but to advocate for the children, accept their behaviour and treat each day as a new one. I found it extraordinary. I felt privileged to work with Carers with such calibre and pure kindness. I still feel that way 20 years later.
After 4 ½ years, an opportunity came up for a Learning and Development Officer role within the agency. I remember how nervous I was delivering my first training course. I went to put a cup of tea on to a table and missed it, the cup smashed and I was trying to wipe it up in front of everyone. I remember like it was yesterday, at the time the course was called Child Protection. Once I started to reflect on stories of children I worked with, I felt that I had something to offer, however, my highlight was delivering Skills to Foster. I would co-train this course and we had it down to a tee, knowing exactly who said what at what time. The same old jokes never grew old! I loved this course as it was taking people on a journey. From day one to the end of day 3 you would see a significant change in people and they would leave feeling they could do the job of fostering, it was a great experience. You would see people’s confidence evolve in front of your eyes; it was amazing.
As the agency expanded it took me to England, visiting multiple offices to deliver different courses. It was a demanding role but enjoyable. The people I continued to meet were exceptional. Realising that while some Foster Carers were caring for some extremely damaged children and young people, they all appeared to have the same DNA; wanting to make a difference, and strongly advocating for them.
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I then progressed to a Senior Manager, Head of Quality Assurance and Learning and Development. This was a new challenge that took me out of my comfort zone. I became responsible for the group’s safeguarding, reviews, complaints, compliance, and public liability issues. This had me back on the road regularly, but again, I loved the opportunity to meet people and hear what they were going through. I also loved the variety of the job, every day was different, you never knew what was going to happen next from which corner of the country to the other.
The Senior Management post also exposed me to the strategic running of the agency and probably paved the way for the role I am in today. Following a short stint as Director for Wales and South West England (due to the company being divested). I later settled back into Wales. Only and in hindsight, I do not really know how I managed such a big job before. I seemed to do it but maybe it was important to get a work-life balance back – plus I was getting older! I also noticed I was able to give more time to people when it became Wales only. That is why I came into this profession in the first place.
On a personal level, I have also gone through some big life changes during my time with the agency. I guess you would, given that it has been 20 years! Getting married, house moves and more recently and most significantly losing my beloved Mum. It is always difficult to lose someone so close but more difficult when that someone has always been on your team or most proud of you. I reflect on all those experiences now because I have always felt so supported when I went through them. To have my management team lined up alongside the chapel of rest on the day of the funeral – will remain in my memory forever. It was like a guard of honour and so respectful.
It can be isolating at times in my position, but I was bombarded with support and kindness from my colleagues, Foster Carers, and the company owners. A big shout out to Huw Binding (Operations Manager) for keeping me on track when he needed to. Always calm and focused. I feel lucky to work for this agency, but more importantly, I feel lucky to work with the people that I do. Work is a huge part of my life, as it is for many people, and I am proud of what I have achieved. On times when things have felt like they are crumbling around you, work has always been my saviour. A good friend gave me some advice once. “When you are having a tough day go and visit a Foster Carer.” It is the best tonic ever; it reminds me of why I do what I do.
For the last few years as Director for Calon Cymru Fostering, it has given me the chance to apply all those experiences to this job. I now work alongside a very strong Head of Operations, and Management team and a Staff group I am very proud of. Having Joe Rhys Jones (Head of Operations) back in the work-family has been amazing. Joe remembers me as a student Social Worker – and says she still sees signs of that feisty 23-year-old now….. I have no idea what Joe is talking about….
I feel privileged to be where I am today. I have never taken it for granted. I believe that is a good thing. I do feel fortunate to be in the position I am, I may well have ‘worked my way up through the ranks’ along the way, but it has given me the strength, experience and knowledge to do a job I love. Yes, I admit it, 20 years on and I still love my job! I take my role seriously, my title may be Director, but I see myself as a leader and know that comes with a responsibility that should not be taken lightly.
The introduction of the new RISCA (Fostering Regulations) stipulates that the Director/RI should visit carers in their own homes and meet with young people. For some Directors, this might be an arduous task, but for me, it was a treat. I trained to be a Social Worker, I love meeting people, I love talking to people and I want to genuinely know their stories. It honestly has been a pleasure to meet so many and hear from them how things have been and whether they are happy with the service they receive.
I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has stood alongside me during this journey, it has been incredible. For those that have believed in me, for those that have supported me through highs and lows, you have been a pleasure to work with. It has been a blast and I look forward to making more memories in the future. But more so, continue to make a difference in children’s lives and continue to see this agency, the Foster Carers and staff receive the positive recognition that they truly deserve. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Sharon Cav xxx