The big sister you never had: Supporting and empowering the community’s most vulnerable girls and young women

Picture this you’re watching TV when the Prime Minister tells you to ‘stay home’ indefinitely in your semi-independent hospice where you live on your own. Oh, and that your social worker will need to go into self-isolationThis is the new reality for some of Haringey’s most disenfranchised girls and young women – many, victims of abuse who’ve transitioned out of the care system. Helping them not just in their hour of need, but for the long haul, is Sister System–a grassroots community-based organisation.  

The charity’s mission is two-fold. As an Open College Network approved centre, they deliver accredited courses to enable the girls to go into further education or skilled employment, as well as a career coach to help them fulfil their potential. They also deliver a peer-to-peer mentoring programme, pairing a big sister (care-experienced young women) with a mentee or ‘younger sister’ whose transitioning out of the care system.

4 Sister System trainers

Thanks to a multi-disciplined team with backgrounds in education, mental health and the criminal justice system, Sister System has become an essential support system to the borough’s statutory service providers. Acting as an advocacy and mediation service, the charity prides itself early in intervention–working with girls from the age of 13 through adolescence and into early womanhood. These girls aren’t just armed with the strategies and tools to recover. They’re given a voice they didn’t know they had.

When the Covid-19 crisis unfolded, the charity was halfway through accredited programmes, which couldn’t just grind to a halt. “Our phones just went mad. The emails went mad. We had to respond quickly,” says Sister System’s founder Okela Douglas.  

Thanks to the generosity of our donorsHaringey Giving was able to award Sister System with a grant of £5,000 which has enabled them to transition their accredited learning courses online and continue crucial programmes like ‘The Sisterhood’– for girls affected by gangs, coercion and manipulation. Four of London’s most notorious organised gangs operate in Haringey. To compound matters, the majority of Sister System’s girls are Black, Asian and Minorty Ethnic – a group that’s been hit particularly hard by Covid-19. 

“Haringey Giving has enabled us to meet their physical, emotional, and mental needs, which in turn will ensure (I'm hoping anyway as our moderator and assessor), that it means that they'll complete their programmes,” says Okela, founder of Sister System.

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We caught up with Okela to find out more about the charity’s inspiring work. 

Hi Okela! Could you tell us a little bit about what what the charity is about? 

Sister System is a charitable organisation working with girls and young women from the age of 13 to 24, who have been in or affected by the care system. Our mission is to forge a new way of working with young women who have been affected by the care system, essentially to ensure that they have the same opportunities as we all do, at school, at home, in our communities, and in a society at large. 

The way that we do this is through a user-led think tank model that we created, involving about 20 young women who had been affected by care. Out of that has come five empowerment programmes that we run that last between six to 12 months. But the support we provide is up to nine years, so we walk with these girls from the onset of adolescence through into early adulthood.

Sister System training session

How is Sister System helping the Haringey community? 

Research led us to Haringey as one of the boroughs within London that had a lot of girls and young women who were on the cusp of care, or in care, or transitioning out of care. We're based in the heart of the community at the 639 Enterprise Centre in Tottenham, which is an amazing place for us to be. Since we've been in Haringey, we've been overwhelmed with girls and young women making self-referrals to us, and statutory providers inviting us on panels, inviting us to form part of the solution. 

How do the girls find out about you? Is it through word of mouth or your social media channels? 

All of the above. I'm really proud of our rate of self-referral because I think that that's where change really happens. When girls graduate through our programme, they become big sisters. Our aim is to employ at least 40% of each cohort.

A lot of our referrals come through the big sisters in the community or come through or Instagram, where girls will say, "This sounds amazing. I would like to share my story. How do I get involved?" We also get referrals through statutory service providers and we sit on the panel of the CSE team, which is the child exploitation team. 

10 Sister System graduates with their certificates

What challenges have arisen for the charity since Covid-19 has come about? 

We're halfway through our accredited programmes so we've a mad scramble to move ourselves onto virtual platforms so we can carry on delivering education therapeutic mentoring. But what we saw happen almost overnight was their inability to cope, mentally and emotionally with what was happening.  

The other things we saw happening really quickly was young women returning to unsafe relationships or unsafe homes in a bid to stay safe. So, we had to do lots of virtual communication with social workers and with panels around safeguarding. 

What became apparent really quickly is that, economically, these girls just were not able to meet their own need. The grant from Haringey Giving has enabled us to be able to say to them, "We can do this for you the next few months."

Sister System volunteer holding up a branded tote bag

How are you planning to use the grant from Haringey Giving

We're putting together weekly hygiene and nutrition boxes for the girls. Unfortunately, because of the lifestyle that girls who are in or affected by care sometimes lead, we do have young women who, at the age of 16, 17 have been diagnosed with diabetes and other nutrition-related health issues. So, it was important for us to be putting together a weekly nutrition basket that is not only tasty, but also that we know that it's going to provide them with four to five balanced meals.

Food boxes showing contents

Haringey Giving has given us enough funding to enable us to do this for 16 of our registered learners for up to two months.  They've also funded us to enable us to go from fortnightly therapeutic mentoring to weekly therapeutic mentoring, again, for up to 16 of our registered learners.  

Sister System logo

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Haringey Giving wants to keep supporting more local community projects like this but we need the help of our Haringey Heroes. With your help we can fund more projects and support Haringey’s most vulnerable people.

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