Happy 3rd Birthday to you, Stand Alone
By Becca Bland. Chief Executive and Founder
I’m going to start this blog by stating the obvious: I’m so pleased that Stand Alone has grown from strength to strength over our three years of existence.
In those early, difficult days of trying to get the charity off the ground, I never imagined that I would be sitting in an office with a team of staff just three years later. Yet the need for our work and the demand for our support, insight and expertise has become greater than ever.
Perhaps today, on our third birthday, it is an appropriate time to talk about how we started and how we have grown.
I’ll start at the beginning. I loosely proposed the idea of a charity to support estranged people in my article in Guardian Family in December 2012. I was flooded with responses from people who were estranged, from all over the UK and indeed all over the world.
Many felt that they had been the only person who was experiencing estrangement from their family, and were both shocked and relieved to know they were not alone. It was clear to me that the dialogue needed to be bigger — and that these voices needed to come together, if we were to be heard and understood for our choices. I certainly felt that it was my responsibility, as a writer and a person affected by estrangement myself, to take this to the next level.
I met with Tara soon after this, who had written to me and lived within a mile of my own home in London. We spent a good few hours talking about our situations, the idea of developing a charity and what it might look like. Tara brought something very positive to my life — she was determined that you could get beyond estrangement, that you could build a happy and fulfilling existence with people who were unfamiliar with the dysfunctional dynamics that we grew up in. Yet at the same time, we both shared similar struggles, baffling moments, anger, grief and insecurity.
After meeting a few times, I honestly felt a new kind of strength in knowing that someone in my own neighbourhood had experienced something similar. I thought others should feel that too.
Feeling a bit bolder, I then set up a meeting with another 6 people who had got in touch with me after the article. We met in the back room of a pub in Islington. I was sick with nerves before I met them. I was sick with worry that I would let them down. I had absolutely no idea how it would turn out or who these people really were — they were an email address, a name, and a story, they were not yet real, living people.
Yet, for three hours (and after an initial twenty minutes of suffocating awkwardness) we began to talk, laugh, eat and sketch out a bucket list of things that would help people with similar stories to our own. We all agreed that meeting others in the same position was our priority — we wanted to talk, share our lived experiences, and understand how others had coped. We also noted that we wanted more representation and to develop a ‘collective voice’ that would help people to understand why people became estranged.
It was there, in that room, that we agreed it should be called Stand Alone — even if that name sounded a bit too much like like a lamp. We felt we wanted to be seen as standing alone in strength, not buried in grief, pity and anger. Most importantly, we wanted to empower others to feel strong too.
In those early days, I relied on Peter Saunders, the Chief Executive of NAPAC, who oversaw my ambitions to start a charity. He often hosted me in his offices, and he listened to both my optimism and my despair. I was broke, I was scared and I was shouldering the hopes, fears and expectations of many people. I felt very responsible for it all. He kindly said that if I ever felt I was going mad by working in my own living room (which I regularly did) I could come and use one of their desks.
He met me unexpectedly on the Tube on one very low morning, when I was feeling particularly tired of persevering. He was on his way to a policy briefing, and I very nearly burst into tears right there and then if it hadn’t been very public.
The pressure was immense — I had no choice but to get it right. But seeing someone who had done it, who had made a success of it, and was on the way to a meeting that would help the millions of people surviving abuse, somehow kept me plodding on.
We then had the good fortune of meeting Reetu Sood, an expert in third sector capacity building, who came on board as a Trustee and eventually became our Chair. And together with Tara and, my partner, Athar, we had our first Board of Trustees.
And that is how Stand Alone was born — a group of about 10 people investing their time, hopes, energy and skills in my idea. So all we needed then was someone to invest some funding, which would enable us to take our first steps in providing solid support to those without a family network and become a registered charity.
We also needed more facts and formal research, and something to qualify the anecdotal experiences we all shared.
I am so pleased that over the three years that followed, our message captured the attention of various funders. The Big Lottery Fund, The Tudor Trust and Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, all made the decision to stand with us and support our work.
The support of the Tudor Trust has meant that I can concentrate on Stand Alone full time, and work effectively in my current role as Chief Executive. It also meant I could finally get out of my living room, and work in Impact Hub Kings Cross with other people who were setting up social enterprises and who would become useful collaborators as we grew. It has made such a difference to have an office (albeit very shared) where we can host meetings, work as a team and network all whilst minimising cost.
The Big Lottery Fund has allowed our groups to grow, evolve and expand in a supported way from London to Sheffield and Newcastle. As a consequence, we have supported hundreds more people in meeting people with shared experiences similar to theirs, and taking the first steps to consider life after estrangement.
Esmee Fairbairn Foundation has really allowed us to tackle the growing issues for estranged young people, as they struggle to access education, accommodation and finance. Without their support we would not have been able to galvanise the energy we had built in the HE sector around estranged young people.
Our evidence-based approach and research activity has led to the production of three key reports around family estrangement, all examining the experiences and profile of people in the UK who are living without contact or support from family or a key family member. It has been a privilege to work with Dr. Lucy Blake from University of Cambridge and the Student Loans Company in carrying out this research.
The responses to the publication of our University of Cambridge ‘Hidden Voices’ report were fascinating to observe, both from the press and public, and also from the participants in our community who shared their experiences as part of the study.
One person on Twitter wrote:
“I did this survey, and it’s been really affirming to look at my answers and see in black & white that I’m not alone.”
The widespread publication of our Hidden Voices results in the national media during December 2015 helped us to broadcast our supportive message to over 9 million people, at a time when many people who are estranged feel isolated.
One woman got in touch after my BBC Breakfast appearance:
“I think it’s really helpful to have 6 minutes of balance on TV when everyone else is playing happy families at Christmas.”
As we further solidify our reputation as leaders in this field, and as policy makers and universities have started to use our work to better include estranged people in their strategies, we are moving towards fulfilling our mission, made by our Trustees.
It is a mission to create a society that is more realistic around the nature of family relationships, and consequently is more understanding of the difficult outcomes people experience and the choices people make.
It has been a privilege and a pleasure to work so collaboratively with a number of academics, counsellors, journalists, designers, businesses and other organisations. It has become clear to all of us that there people who feel our mission is an important one, who are willing to get behind our key messages and work with us.
I can only hope that by continuing to build this combination of evidence and enthusiasm, we will fuel our momentum, influence and subsequently our impact for the years to come.
As for me, I feel that Stand Alone and the issue of family estrangement is something that is now becoming bigger than me, and my creative energy. Therefore, nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to see other people talk about their experience in the national media as I once did. It is wonderful to see others taking on the challenge of creating new and innovative projects to help people in this position. It is fantastic to know that my efforts have instigated a drive and passion in people who also want to raise awareness, and create change for people who are facing family estrangement — be it in health services, policies or attitudes.
There are moments where I’m forced to take a huge step back and realise the impact of Stand Alone. The very first quote from of our new impact report gave me one of those moments:
“Just that you exist is very supportive. Finding out that I wasn’t alone in my estrangement made a big difference for me.”
So whatever happens in the future, however much myself and the team continue to achieve, our website, existence, and what we have already done, is enough for many.
Follow Becca on Twitter: @beccablandish
You can read our first impact report here: http://bit.ly/SAimpactreport
If you have a spare fiver: https://www.justgiving.com/standalone