When 23-year-old Nathan Sullivan stepped up to speak before a crowded room in Edinburgh this week, he had a mountain of unspoken voices behind him.
More than 15,000 children are currently living in care in Scotland. Nathan was one of them. It’s why he’s here now, in this campus room in a corner of the city, with all these people waiting to listen to his story.
He’s here to have his voice heard – to make sure that all the children’s voices are heard.
His long dark fringe hides a pair of anxious eyes and his stomach is twisted in knots. His speech has been carefully written out, ready for the ears of the officials he knows need to hear it.
“I was genuinely petrified. I had a knot in my stomach that was probably about the size of a football,” said Nathan.
“It was the first official big speaking event I’d done, but I just wanted to take all the negative stuff that has happened in my life and turn every single bit of the bad stuff into positive things.”
Nathan honestly can’t remember how old he was when he was first put into care.
His mother suffered from multiple illnesses and he spent most of his childhood being moved around child minders, carers or even his mother’s friends.
“My mother was 40 when she had me,” said Nathan. “She was admitted into hospital so many times. Because I never knew my father I was then put into care. It was always for different times, I never knew how long I’d be in a placement for.
“I’ve probably stayed all over Fife in foster care, kinship care, and respite care. It got to the point where even one of mum’s friends would take me for a couple of weeks. But then my mum passed away.”
“They were really good to me, it felt homely,” recalls Nathan.
And then Nathan turned 17.
“I had seven or eight different social workers during my time there, but I literally saw my case worker only six or seven times in a year when I turned 16,” he said.
“He had an assistant deal with me who I saw a few more times, but I didn’t have much support until I got my first tenancy. They helped me furnish it and then that was it. The support in the beginning was fantastic, but then as soon as that small two-week window closed, I was left alone.
“No-one had really taught me how to budget, who to speak to if I needed help,” said Nathan. “I got told how to claim for benefits and that was pretty much it.
“I tried to visit the old residential unit I was in, but the staff had changed, the rules had changed and it wasn’t the same caring atmosphere that I had grown up with. It had changed.”
Despite the isolation, Nathan said he refused to let his situation define him. He enrolled instead at college in Edinburgh and quickly found a role for himself – a role that few other than himself could have performed.
“I came up with the small idea for a care support group for those who’ve been in care to support others like them,” said Nathan.
“Originally I wasn’t sure what support networks there were for me for college, but I got involved in the student associations and found out how many other care leavers there were like me.
“They may not have walked the exact same mile in your shoes but they’ve walked in the same direction. I realised we could help each other.”
Nathan spoke to the charity Who Cares Scotland to get advice on his group, and is now hopeful that other organisations will see what he is doing and focus on supporting care leavers in their own area.
“I want to break the stigma and the labels attached to those who’ve been in care,” said Nathan. “I’ve been bullied and even physically attacked in the past. I’m not saying it was directly because I was in care, but there was a lot of negativity myself because I was in the care system.
“I still reckon young people are going through what I went through and I want to make sure it doesn’t keep happening.”
Nathan is due to move into a new tenancy in Edinburgh next Thursday and is enrolled in a health and social care course at college. His goal though, he said, is to get a degree in social work.
“It’s going to be hard but I’m passionate about it and I still believe in what I’m doing,” said Nathan. “I want to only focus on the good support that I was given from people – from those who helped me when I was in care and put something back as a thanks to everything they did.
“You have to use every resource possible to help yourself get to a better place. One of the quotes I once heard was from a great guy called Steve Fair. He said you may have a bad start but it doesn’t have to end bad. And I completely agree with that.”
Both Edinburgh College Students’ Association (ECSA) and Edinburgh College have taken the Who Cares? Scotland Pledge. The pledge underlines the efforts the college and ECSA will take to continue to support and inspire the lives of young people in and leaving care.
If you would like more information on Nathan’s group or on the Who Cares? Scotland Pledge, get in touch by email.