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A chance to help out

Just before Jimmy Paton's dad died, they met up and went for a long walk.

"He had heart problems, and he knew he was going to die," the 20-year-old remembers. "He said he was proud of me for not going downhill and choosing the life he chose."

Jimmy's dad had been a bit of a villain, a repeat offender, serving short sentences throughout Jimmy's early life and teenage years. A confrontational attitude with the police just made things worse, his son says.

What made things harder still was that Jimmy's dad was a lone parent – his mum took her own life when he was just a few weeks old, so he spent years in the care of South Lanarkshire council.

"Last year was the worst year of my life. Losing my dad opened my eyes a bit," Jimmy explains. "He had a hard life, but it was still one of the most positive relationships I had. He was always proud of the good side of me.

"I feel he stuck around to see us grow up, and waited until we were ready for him to go."

Perhaps remarkably, Jimmy is thriving despite a difficult start in life which has also seen him spend recent years homeless and sleeping rough or "sofa-surfing" with mates.

He leaves on Tuesday to join the prestigious youth volunteering scheme Raleigh International in the jungles of Borneo for a 10-week programme which involves working on a schoolhouse building and sanitation schemes, as well as an expedition and environmental element.

It's a great success for someone who has always defied daunting odds to do well. Even when he was homeless, he was working as a youth worker, with the local Universal Connections youth service, he says.

"When I left care, I was offered a house, but one was next to a drug dealer and I refused another two and I didn't get any more help. I just thought – well, I'm homeless, I've been sofa-surfing for a while anyway."

One of the problems Jimmy has is a restless and rootless nature, which means he is all too ready to cut loose, he says. "I am finally in supported accommodation now, but I'd been travelling about homeless since I left care at 16. To me it's normal. I'd feel settled for two weeks then I'd be away again.

"Sometimes things get too much for me and I just want to disappear."

He confesses that despite now owning a proper bed, he hasn't been sleeping ahead of the Borneo trip, which came about after he got involved in volunteering and got support through the charity Who Cares?

"My plan is to live and work in a different country and I reckon if I can do Borneo, I can do whatever I want. When I first heard about it I didn't believe in myself but I have really pushed for it. It is something I've got to do."

According to Who Cares?, which supports Scottish young people "looked after" by local councils, Jimmy's story is a great example of what can happen if youngsters in care are given an opportunity and not stigmatised by their background.

This week, the charity launches its latest Give Me A Chance campaign, calling on all Scots to make a pledge to be fair to a child in care, listen to their stories and help challenge stigma and discrimination.

In a campaign backed by Scottish Government ministers and social work chiefs, it is asking members of the public to visit its website and sign up to a pledge to listen.

Jimmy's story is also an example of the need for a closer look at the high numbers of young people who have grown up in care who subsequently become homeless. Government statistics confirm that for the years from 2008-2011 an average of 2500 homeless applications a year included someone who had been in care. Only last year did this drop – to 1956. In each year more than half of the applications were from someone who had left care within the last five years.

According to Alex Horne, a care leaver who now works helping train councils in corporate parenting, care leavers are often offered the worst accommodation on housing lists. He and his partner were offered a house in Ayr in a close frequented by drug dealers, he says, when they were bringing home a newborn baby.

Many struggle to maintain tenancies because they crave company or can't manage their finances, fellow care leaver David Miller adds. "I went from living in a children's unit full of other young people and staff to total silence," he recalls. "I could only relax and go to sleep when someone started battering down the neighbour's door"

Many, like Jimmy, leave care initially to stay with relatives or friends and only later turn up as homeless applicants.

That's one of the reasons why the Children's and Young People's Bill which the Scottish Government recently consulted on, includes provision for care leavers to request help from a council right up until they turn 25.

Housing Minister Margaret Burgess describes the proposed change as critical. "Children who have been through the care system do require to be supported and should be until they are 25," she says. "Having options is so important, and councils have to look at the whole picture."

However, although it says young people can ask for more support, critics of the bill point out that it doesn't require councils to act on that request, and many would like that changed.

Meanwhile, thanks to paid work through Who Cares? and support from South Lanarkshire council, Jimmy has now just the taking of anti-malarial tablets on his to-do list before departing for Indonesia.

Harry Stevenson, executive director of social work at South Lanarkshire Council, has watched Jimmy's progress for five years and said he was delighted the council could back him: "From tough beginnings he's done really well, and what he's achieved does him a huge credit."

www.whocaresscotland.org

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Families

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