Chloe* was just 5 when I started befriending her. Home is a two up two down semi-detached house on a council estate by Brighton racecourse. I remember her excitement and fearlessness at first meeting this new person in her life that was going to 'take her out'. It was quite striking that she didn't really seem to mind where you might be 'taking her out' to. Just anywhere away from home where she could get some one on one attention apart from her mum and three siblings, not to mention some peace and quiet from the various menagerie of animals that seemed to pass through her life!
Early on we kept it pretty simple visiting the playground, the beach or the library usually ending up at a café for some hot chocolate and chips somewhere. When I used to ask Chloe if she wanted to go anywhere specifically she had two stock responses: 'to the pier' or 'to the Sealife Centre.' These were the places her friends at school spoke about so these were obviously the places where one went! It only slowly dawned on me that she wasn't aware of all the other exciting things we could do, and I realised that befriending isn't just about following the child's impulses but rather opening up new pathways for them. This realisation was empowering. We expanded our adventures to picnics, kite-flying and farm visits and after a year or so I took the decision to really invest in something that might offer her a skill for life – that was horse-riding.
As with the first time I met Chloe I can easily recall the first time I took her riding. I was pretty sure she'd enjoy it – what six year old girl wouldn't? And this was a six year old girl who had bags of physical energy, adored animals and was fearless to boot. What could go wrong? Actually nothing, really. She took to it like a duck to water and I took real pleasure in watching her improve during her fortnightly lessons over the course of nearly 3 years. Even better was watching her develop other vital skills such as resilience, how to work hard, development of a longer term view and respect for the teachers and horses. She soon started to nag her mum for the chance to look after her own pony and, through some contacts at school, is now looking after and riding a pony at a stables just a 10 minute walk from where she lives. She now regularly attends horse shows with friends at the yard and in December 2012 she competed in her first show winning three rosettes! Needless to say she was absolutely thrilled.
So that's what Chloe has got out of the relationship so far but it's hardly been one-sided. I've learnt a lot too. Namely quite how complex a notion poverty is and that there is no quick fix, whatever various politicians might say. That said, it's been enormously rewarding to know that you really are making a difference to a child's life. Perhaps more than anything I've learnt that if you work with the grain of the culture of the child and family you can really facilitate change. As it happens part of Chloe's family is rooted in gypsy culture. Therefore introducing her to horses was a sure way of getting support from her family, and far more successful than other things I've tried which haven't tapped into that same well of goodwill. There are probably some lessons here for life too!
This is our story in short, but it's taken us 5 years to get there and who knows where it will end. If the picture sounds rosy then this would be wrong and there have been many frustrating and disappointing moments too. I've accompanied Chloe's mum to social services proceedings, tried and tried to help Chloe improve her literacy (and on the whole failed), watched as various dogs, rabbits, ferrets and hamsters have passed in and out of Chloe's life and seen Chloe and her siblings struggle at school and struggle with authorities, be it with educationalists, social workers or the police.
But 5 years later we're still hanging in there and on balance I would say her life chances look better than when I started. Of course quite how much of that is down to me, I'll never really know. (* real names changed).