Gemma’s mum died unexpectedly when she was nine. Her relationship with her stepdad – who Gemma calls her dad – soon broke down and she moved in with her godparents and spent time staying with her grandparents. After caring for her grandad, who had recently suffered a stroke, she lost both her grandparents and ended up in foster care.
But now, aged 19, Gemma is studying law at Greenwich University, advocates for care leavers through her work with the local authority and speaks out about her experiences in the hope of inspiring others.
She said: “I’m trying to go on a journey to show how you can turn an adversity into an advantage. When my mum died, when I went into care, when everything seemed to be stacked up against me, I took the harder route, the better route. I want my future to be better than my past and I know I’m the only one who is going to make that happen.”
Here, she shares her story.
Dealing with loss
“I had a very good childhood from a traditional nuclear family,” Gemma said. “Then there came a period from that date for about five years – it was a nightmare I didn’t think I was going to wake up from.”
She explained how her grandad – who was like a second father – had a stroke and was in a serious condition in hospital, and not long after, her mum died.
“Very suddenly my mum passed away,” Gemma said. “There was no sign, no warning. She went to bed that night and didn’t wake up the next morning.”
Gemma and her brother had gone to school but were collected early to be told the news.
“I remember coming into the hall and seeing my dad’s face. He sat us down and told us what had happened. I didn’t believe it.
“I went back to school again the next day. Life continued for me. It was strange and didn’t really feel real.”
Caring for grandparents
Gemma said her family didn’t really have time to grieve together and soon after she was helping to care for her grandad.
“My grandad was coming out of hospital and I stayed with my nan and grandad for some time and helped to look after him,” Gemma said. “He then ended up in a nursing home and soon after my nan had a fall and ended up in hospital and then in a nursing home.
“I was experiencing hospital and nursing homes constantly. It was heartbreaking to see. My grandad passed away first.
“The day I moved into my placement I’d been to see my nan for the last time as she was dying.
“I was very lost as an individual at that time. At that point I went into care and everything around me felt like it was crumbling. I felt very alone.”
Going into foster care
“The foster journey really started when I was 14,” Gemma said. “It was a three-month placement I was put on, with a single lady who had never parented before. She wanted a young girl that she could nurture and I had grown up very quickly, I knew how to look after myself. She was trying to put boundaries in place which I wasn’t used to. That placement didn’t last.
“Then I moved in with Shelley and Nicholas. That was meant to be a two-week respite and that turned into four years. That changed everything.”
Gemma has described Shelley as her ‘rock’ and ‘the person who I go to for everything and anything’.
“My first placement, she was trying to be that mother figure and I didn’t want her to be,” Gemma said. “With Shelley, when I first walked in she came down with a red cherry dress on with a red Micheal Kors handbag and matching shoes and I thought ‘this woman’s got style’.”
Gemma settled in with the family instantly.
“My social worker said ‘I knew that was the placement’.”
Gemma added: “I wasn’t a typical foster child – although there’s never one story that’s the same. I didn’t come with problems that needed tackling, I just needed loving.”
Drive and determination
Despite what she’d been through, Gemma kept up with her schoolwork and was determined to make something of herself.
One story she tells is of a school trip to Zanzibar, to help teach children in Africa. But it was £2,500.
“I obviously didn’t have the money to go,” Gemma says. “As a 14-year-old girl, I chose to fundraise the money. I did a sponsored silence in school, teachers paid me to be quiet! I emailed round loads of businesses, did a big raffle with prizes donated. There were loads of little things and I ended up raising the entire amount to go.
“In any situation, no matter whether you think it’s possible to reach, you always can if you’ve got the willpower and determination to do it. I’m a firm believer that if you’ve got the drive and the commitment, and you’re willing to make the sacrifices, you will achieve it.
“That was one of my best achievements.”
A life-changing experience
“My mum was very big on travelling the world,” Gemma said. “She would show me her books of when she went to Kenya and she talked about her experiences. She drilled into me that travelling is an experience you should never miss out on.
“I’ve always wanted to help people and to give back. I suppose that’s where my passion for the law comes from, it’s giving a voice to the voiceless and helping the helpless.
“We were at a school where you’ve got kids coming in with hardly any uniform, no shoes on their feet, the classrooms are absolutely disgraceful to us.
“It made me realise going there, that in the UK, we take education for granted because it’s free, but for them they see education as a way out, they can make something of themselves.
“The experience was incredible. Just seeing how my presence can put smiles on faces, it’s how you can make an impact on someone’s life. That was what hit me hard. When I went to Zanzibar, I realised doing things for the community, that’s where my passion lies.”
Education and the benefits of a mentor
“I managed to come out with seven GCSEs which despite everything was fantastic. Shelley almost cried when she saw that as that was an achievement for her as well.
“I got into one of the top colleges, BHASVIC. I did law, English language and literature and media. And then left there, got really good grades. That got me into Greenwich University.”
Gemma, who is now in her first year of her law degree, says finding a mentor has really helped her to gain great experiences which will help shape her future.
“The barrister who is mentoring me, I met through my neighbour. They asked Shelley and Nicholas ‘what does Gemma want to do’. Shelley told them it was law, and they put me in touch with a barrister, a QC (Queen’s Counsel).
“I got in touch straight away and arranged to meet the following morning. I talked his ears off and a relationship started from there. He still mentors me to this day.
“I’ve had some incredible experiences. I went to the High Court with him to sit on a case. We went to an inspiring women’s conference at a top law firm in London where I met the president of the Supreme Court at the time. I met incredible women.”
“Through my mentor, and my devotion to getting to where I wanted to be, I’ve continued to pursue my career in law. I’ve secured work experience with Simmons & Simmons this summer, and an internship for Macfarlanes, another law firm. I’ve become a student ambassador at Greenwich.
“I also volunteer for Brighton and Hove City Council, as an expert by experience. We do a lot of work, review all the care leaver documents, we’ve interviewed for two top posts. I’ve just led one of the corporate parenting boards for the council. They’ve handed over a lot to us young people, hearing from us directly.
“The reason I do a lot of work with the local authority, is I’ve seen the benefits of having a good advocate and I’ve seen the drawbacks of having a bad advocate. I want to make sure that everything is in place to prevent other young people from going through some of the things I went through. And it’s giving something back.”
Setting sights on the future
“The plan is to become a barrister,” Gemma said. “I want to specialise in something to do with young people and family, so maybe family law and an element of human rights.
“The plan now is to continue to build my network.
“Eventually I hope to own my own law firm and see my name on the wall. That’s inspiration from Suits! I’d also love to do a secondment abroad.
“On top of law, I’ve got plans to open my own businesses.”
A matter of mindset
When asked what advice she’d give to those going through a similar journey to the one she’d experienced, Gemma said: “Don’t give up because although you find yourself in a bad situation, give it time. When you get yourself out of that situation and you look back, you’ll see everything which happened led you to where you are now. If my mum hadn’t died as sad as it was, if I’d never been in care, if I hadn’t been through what I’d been through I might not be pursuing a career in the law.
“It is a matter of the mind as well. If you set your mind on something you can make it happen. It’s all down to you.”