Written by David Kingsley, Neighbourhoods Coordinator, and Yolanda Lear, Account Group Project Officer.
The Charlie Burns Foundation is a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) registered in the Well Street Neighbourhood. The organisation was formed in 2015 by Keeley Burns and one of Charlie’s best friends in the aftermath of her son, Charlie becoming the victim of a fatal knife crime attack.
We spoke to Allison Vitalis, Project Director, and Trauma-Informed Support Worker of the Charity, who has been an integral part of the organisations since 2016. Allison is also a Mental Health First Aider, Chair of Albion Drive Tenants, and Residents Association (TRA) within the London Fields Neighbourhood, a Forensic Psychology Lecturer at the University of East London, and a Parent Governor at Hackney New Primary School. She began supporting with The Charlie Burns Foundation whilst working with Hackney Play Streets as they were interested in doing a “Family Fun-day” at the time and has been working for the charity ever since. The Charlie Burns Foundation supports and works with local residents with a range of projects around serious youth violence, mental health, and emotional wellbeing and family support, to name a few.
During the pandemic, they have placed an emphasis on supporting individuals using therapeutic methodologies, providing wellbeing sessions and workshops, breaking down barriers and promoting social inclusion. Their main focus is around working with families, parents, and young people who have been affected by serious youth violence.
DK: Can you give some insights into some of the projects that you have run, please? Particularly those conducted during some of the lockdown periods?
AV: Okay, during the lockdowns, we found that the need for our service had increased, and we found ourselves supporting a lot more families with a range of different issues from domestic violence, sexual exploitation and food poverty along with our usual everyday support provided to the victims of serious youth violence. To address food poverty, we decided to provide food packages and care packages to families that we support and in the wider community. We started to work with “a plate for London” who provided recipe boxes –seven meals and recipes that had all of ingredients in the box, over a 6-week period during lockdown.
In addition to this, after the lockdown period, we also commenced a project called …As Therapy. This supported the mental health and emotional wellbeing of residents in Hackney and the wider community, focussing on resilience building after lockdown, and also to provide them with skills, coping mechanisms and practices in the likelihood of another lockdown period. …As Therapy provided six therapeutic interventions; one traditional – Counselling, and five alternative methodologies including Reiki, Yoga, Writing, Drama and Drumming.
DK: How did you advertise these sessions, and what was the turnout like for some of these therapy sessions?
AV: So, we advertised through our local networks, but we also advertised on Eventbrite, which gave us a wider reach. So, not only did we have people who lived in Hackney, we also had people coming from all parts of London.
DK: Can you talk about the demographics people that attended?
AV: We had a vast mix of people; all from different backgrounds, cultures, nationalities, ages, and professions. We had many young people that came into certain sessions. I feel like the drama and drumming therapy sessions had the biggest mixes when it came to age groups. When it came to writing… As Therapy, there were a lot of young people. With the Reiki… As Therapy, it was a much older demographic (and predominantly women) so just goes to show the interventions that attracted different people’s personal interests.
DK: I am aware as well that you run other sessions simultaneously; Postcode Parents and Crisis Response. Are you able to give us a bit more insight into this?
AV: Postcode Parents was set up in 2015 when the Charlie Burns Foundation was set up, and it was a support group that supported those bereaved by serious youth violence – specifically gun and knife crime. Throughout the years, we have changed the format of Postcode Parents, so even though it is still a support group, it’s not predominantly a peer-to-peer support. Postcode Parents now supports people bereaved or affected by serious youth violence and those who have concerned about young people and, is now facilitated by trained therapeutic counsellors, from an organisation named I Found Me. I Found Me also facilitates our Crisis Response group therapy sessions, directly for those bereaved by serious youth violence, led by a specialist bereavement counsellor who uses techniques for those directly bereaved to address their concerns.
DK: What have you found that has worked during this time to support so many people?
AV: So, in respect of …As Therapy, I feel providing people with different coping mechanisms in order to support them, instead of them going into seek talking therapies. It gave them tools to provide self-care, so they were able to either write down when they felt they were going through a crisis or, a time of needed support, or were able to pick up a drum as an outlet as an example. With Postcode Parents and Crisis Response, they have created a forum and safe space for people to openly speak about their experiences, their stories, and for them to be around people who have similar personal and lived experiences. It makes it easier having a facilitator which drives the conversation. Sometimes we ask questions, some of them difficult, however being able to give our users that platform to express themselves freely, with no judgement is extremely important.
DK: With some of the services users of the Charlie Burns Foundation that came to some of the sessions, particularly myself and a few of my colleagues from the Young People and Families Team at Hackney CVS, there seemed to be a high proportion lot of those from Black (British) African and Caribbean backgrounds. One thing we have talked about a lot previously is that there are not a lot of services tailored for specific cultural or ethnic groups, supporting those from different demographic backgrounds. How do you feel that you have been able to benefit the people in your community?
AV: I feel on a personal level that when you see people who look like yourself, you are more likely to attend a specific kind of service. When they don’t, then people may feel a bit more apprehensive where there is no familiarity (they don’t look like me, therefore, will not understand me). They may feel misunderstood or feel that there is a lack of understanding especially on cultural perspectives. However, our organisation has a diverse pool of colleagues and facilitators, all from mixed backgrounds and different races. The people that we work with just happens to be predominantly Black men and women, so I feel like it makes people a bit more comfortable talking to people who look like them, and you actually share lived experiences and have understanding of cultural backgrounds, cultural differences, etc. The Charlie Burns Foundation provides an open forum, it is for everybody. There is no discrimination or prejudice, we are a safe space. We not only provide group therapy and group support, but we also provide 1-1 counselling if we feel that an individual needs it, or it has been requested, and the counselling is free service.
YL: What’s key about the Charlie Burns Foundation, where most people would say support groups such as these that are organised by Black people, Charlie Burns was a white male. So just highlighting that alone is powerful.
DK: Sometimes we find that society deems knife crime amongst young people as a ‘Black issue’, especially with all the negative press, but we are more than aware that it transpires colour…
AV: I feel like with serious youth violence we need to understand that there are direct victims, secondary victims, and there are also bystanders. Bystanders are people who may have passed a memorial or seen a news article of somebody that has passed away, but they may not know them, but they see them, so it’s affected them, but they may not realise how. Secondary victims are the parents, families and friends that have been directly affected or had someone taken away from them through serious youth violence and the direct victims are those who have had their lives taken or have been a victim of knife or gun crime and are living with their experience, wounds and the fear of repercussions. The Charlie Burns Foundation provides support for them all.
I feel like organisations like this are here to support families providing them a safe space to grieve, assist them in navigating through life after loss and understand their experience, but are also here to educate a society who has no idea or understanding of our young people and the ever-changing youth culture. It’s for society to understand these young people, and not just label them as people who engage in anti-social behaviour or assume that everyone’s carrying a knife, or on drugs, because that is not how it is. Our young people have substance, talent and promise.
So, we need to embrace them, we need to encourage them, elevate them, and just make them realise how amazing that they really are in order for the perception to change, make them feel valued. Let’s not just highlight those who have done bad things or taken the wrong road. We need to pay attention to those doing great things because there are more out there doing good than bad. We need to change negative perception and stigma attached to our young people, and the negative impacts of youth culture. …Let’s change the narrative!
More information about the Charlie Burns Foundation can be found online: https://www.thecharlieburnsfoundation.com/