Mirabel's Lord Somers camp: an oasis in a difficult life

As families arrive at the Lord Somers camp for a Mirabel gathering, Angelina knows what she’s looking for. The faces of the carers and the faces of the children tell their stories. Some people are at breaking point and the camp is a subtle intervention in the struggle of their life. Family support co-ordinator Angelina and her Mirabel team smile their wide welcoming smiles. And they mean it.


‘At Mirabel, we support children who are living in kinship care as a result of parental risk, and substance abuse,’ Angelina explains. ‘Kinship carers are not foster carers; kinship carers are family. Usually grandparents, and often a grandmother. They become kinship carers because of something that their own child has not been able to do, to adequately care for their own children.’


Imagine the grief. Your adult child has spun off the rails or disappeared completely, lost in drug use. Their kid or kids, your grandkids, are now alone, vulnerable, scared and very much suffering the effects of their environment. It’s on you, the grandparent, to step up and suddenly take on all the responsibility of raising this child or children, dealing with the volcano of anger, fear, abuse and other negative emotions that often come from such a background.


What Angelina likes to stress is that this can happen to anybody. ‘When people ask, “Oh, what sort of families do you work with?” I say, ones just like ours,’ she said. ‘Families like yours and mine, who are doing the best for their children. One of their children has had an experience and something’s happened that’s led them to drug use and then everything’s just snowballed from there.’


Is it any wonder that one carer, Helen, admits she was at breaking point, when Mirabel invited her and her granddaughter to a recent Lord Somers camp weekend retreat? ‘It could not have happened at a more appropriate time for me,’ Helen wrote to Mirabel. ‘I could see that we all felt safe, it was ridiculously relaxing for us carers and our little girl had an absolute blast.’


Even better, the following week showed a remarkable change in her girl. Back in the real world, school marks improved, attention improved, teachers commented on how engaged and focused she was. The grandmother wrote, ‘She really has been her “best self” this week in every possible way. And for the first time in over 12 months, she hasn’t mentioned her fear of her mum’s boyfriend once. (It’s usually at least once a day!) She obviously needed the reset just as much - if not more - than we did but we didn’t realise that until now.’


The Mirabel Foundation is celebrating its 25th year in 2023, and the team remains proud of ‘never turning a child away that is in need.’ Mirabel provides therapeutic groups, social events and support groups, educational assistance for kids struggling at school and personalised advice and assistance for carers dealing with officialdom.


‘At Mirabel, we simply ask: what supports do you require?’ Angelina said. ‘We are always there with advice, suggestions, and sometimes just metaphorical hugs. Just you know, “I'm here. I can hear you. I can see you. I know what it’s like.”’ It’s a desperately difficult road, for both the children abandoned by or removed from drug-affected parents, and the kinship carers whose lives are often upended to provide a new beginning.


‘I’ll give you a picture of a typical kinship carer,’ Angelina said. ‘It might be someone who’s in their early 60s, maybe near retirement age or just retired, often a single grandmother, but sometimes it’s a couple. Imagine a couple, newly retired or about to retire, who bought their caravan, they’re about to travel around Australia or whatever, but then there’s a knock on the door or a phone call. “Your grandchild is at risk. This is what we know. Can’t stay with mum. Are you able to care for them?” They say, “Of course we are.” The child is now ensconced in their home. There go all their plans for travel. Or if they’re working, they’ve got to, in many cases, take leave and if it’s an informal carer, you’re not entitled to family leave so, you take your long service leave. There may or may not be some government support but, even if you are financially supported, it’s usually not enough to set up to have a child or children in your home.


‘If the department’s involved, you obviously must be available for meetings, and then there’s taking children to appointments. In many cases, our kids may not have ever been to a dentist, they may not have had their vaccinations. Often, it’s running around to a lot of different appointments, looking at the children’s physical health, trying to get them into schools or day care. Being engaged with Centrelink where you may have never had anything to do with Centrelink before.’


This is all before you get to the child themselves and the trauma, potential abuse and emotional damage that needs to be addressed.


‘This is where you’re at,’ Angelina said. ‘The carer loses control of everything. Being able to go out to dinner with your retired friends and socialise, because you’ve got a two-year-old or a six-year-old at home, often with really extreme behaviours, which means people won’t come back to your house for coffee either. You can lose your relationship with other grandchildren because you no longer have time to spend with them, one on one. Your life as it was before has changed totally and is now revolving around these children. Our carers can be very isolated. Most of the grandparents do it with so much love, or as one grandparent said to me, “We don’t love what we do, but we love our children, so we do it.”’


Yet at something like a Mirabel Lord Somers camp, where the kids can run free together, as well as see that there are other kids just like them, and take part in activities, the carers can also breathe out.


‘The majority of the carers have an incredible sense of humour’ Angelina smiles. ‘They’re incredibly strong. I work every day with these amazing, strong carers who will be in the middle of a really intense support group and someone will crack a joke and everyone’s laughing. You’re surrounded by strength. They’re amazing, really amazing people.’


Helen, for example, at the camp. Angelina bumped into her on the second morning. ‘I said, “How are you? How did you sleep?” and Helen said, “I had six hours uninterrupted sleep.” And I was thinking, “You’re at a school campsite on the really uncomfortable mattresses.” But she said, “I just felt so safe.” A lot of our carers have experienced trauma, whether it be their own trauma throughout their lives or trauma brought about by what’s happened with their children. It’s wonderful that Helen could feel safe.’


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