A woman who became a carer for her disabled mother at nine and was later placed into residential care where she became pregnant at 15 is now pursuing her dream of becoming a youth worker as she wants to give a voice to the children who “need it the most”.
Shauna Kaleta (24), a trainee youth worker who lives in Bangor, Co Down, began caring for her disabled mother, who requires the use of a wheelchair, at the age of nine.
She cooked her own meals, completed household chores, cleaned the house, and walked herself to school – but given this was “normal” life for Shauna, and her mother needed emotional and physical support, she did not question it and knew she had to “step up”.
Reflecting on this now, however, Shauna said: “I have a daughter who’s going to be eight soon, and when I think about what I was doing at nine years old, it’s horrifying.
“It’s shocking to see just how much I had to grow up in such a short period of time.”
Given Shauna did not have any external familial support at the time, she was then placed into residential care at 14, where she lived in four different units with several other individuals who had all “gone through their own trauma and heartache”.
“It’s traumatic for a young mind to go through, it doesn’t matter where you come from,” she said.
“You can’t really feel safe, you’re alone, you’re isolated – everything’s changed in the blink of an eye.”
Shauna then got pregnant at 15 with her daughter, now seven, whom she wishes to keep anonymous, which was a “big shock”.
However, at this point, she said it was as though her “brain finally turned back on again” and she was “ready to put everything aside” to prove she was a “good parent”.
After having her son, now six, moving to her own flat, and then having her second daughter, now four, both of whom she also wishes to keep anonymous, she then came across a social media post about The Prince’s Trust courses – and that is when her life “truly began”.
She effectively began her education at the age of 21 and, through the Team programme, Shauna obtained the qualifications and work experience she needed to start pursuing her dream of becoming a youth worker, as she wants to give a voice to those in care.
“From being in care myself, from going through that walk of life and seeing my peers struggle and feeling the struggle myself… there’s only a handful of support workers that you’ll pick out from all those faces and say ‘They made a difference in my life’,” she said.
“Because of that, it’s pushed me to be like them, to be that person who makes a difference and to give to the people who have no voice but really do need it the most.
“Kids in the care system are practically silent, they don’t have the same opportunities, they don’t have the same support systems, or education, or anything – they are starting from below the dirt, so that did definitely drive me to want to help them.”
Caring for her mother from such a young age, Shauna said she “didn’t really know any different”, adding: “You don’t really question it at that age, you just go with it.”
However, when she was placed into residential care at 14, she said this was “traumatic”.
With Shauna seeing new admissions almost every week, speaking to staff members who were unfamiliar, having meetings “constantly”, and overhearing “negative things about (her) parents and about (her) life”, she felt she was “unsafe” and she lacked protection.
“You have these young people going into this strange place, with no family, no friends, most of them have been taken out of their home areas,” she said.
“Then they’re just thrown into this adrenaline rush of being around these strangers – it’s basically a recipe for chaos.”
Shauna lived in four different residential units, including a secure facility, before falling pregnant at 15 – but that is when “everything changed” in “a heartbeat”.
“No 15-year-old plans to get pregnant, especially in my circumstance, but it happened,” she said.
“It was scary, and the unknown was the biggest fear, but of course I was having a little baby.
“I was going to have somebody who was going to love me as much as I love them, and I was ready to put everything aside to work for it… and to show I was a capable parent.”
Shauna said this is when her goals and mindset changed, as she did not want to remain in care or her daughter to be placed in the care system after she was born.
At around two months pregnant, she then moved to another unit and completed a number of parenting courses, such as baby brain development and emotional management, as she knew she was being watched “every minute of every day” and wanted to “prove” herself.
On September 19th, 2015, when she held her baby in her arms for the first time, she knew “there was no going back” and she said her daughter is her “absolute world to this day”.
“The statistics are really bad for care leavers, full stop, never mind young mothers or young mothers trying to leave care – (the statistics) are horrific,” she said.
“It’s not exactly the system’s fault, but it’s not the young mothers’ fault either, it’s just life doesn’t want to work for you, so I knew I was going to have a fight on my hands.”
Shauna later gave birth to her son, moved into her own flat, and had her second daughter, but it was not until her youngest child started nursery, when she was 21, that she discovered The Prince’s Trust charity, and she “jumped at the chance” to join the Team programme.
Shauna said she feels the opportunity “fell out of the heavens for (her)” – and, while she was nervous and did not know what to expect, she felt “hope” for the first time in her life.
“I’ve always had that drive of wanting to show my kids a good work ethic,” she said.
“I want to give them what I didn’t have growing up; I want stability, and I want to have money in our pockets so we’re not trying to live pay cheque by pay cheque.
“That drive really kicked in when I had that free time, and I thought ‘Right, OK, it’s time to get up and do something, get your education’.”
Shauna obtained her essential skills – Level 2 maths and English – through the 12-week course and completed work experience, which “kickstarted her career path”.
Shauna is now on track to become a youth worker and, looking back, she is incredibly proud of her achievements.
She wants to encourage others to be brave and take the first step towards whatever goal they wish to achieve, as “it doesn’t matter how long it takes”.
“It’s been a rollercoaster journey, but it’s taught me that nothing is too much,” Shauna said.
“Anything that I put my mind to, anything that I want to do, I can figure out how to do it; it doesn’t matter how long it takes me.
“I want to be a support worker for the likes of residential care kids, or kids within the care system, to be the one making the difference.
“I’m not exactly going to be an entrepreneur or crazy things like that, I just want to be someone who can at least make a difference in one person’s life. That, to me, is the dream.”
As part of Tango and The Prince’s Trust partnership, Tango has given young people a platform to tell their stories through its content series Fearless Stories. hosted by Yung Filly.