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Woman and young man sitting on chairs in a garden

‘We are just one big, mad family’

“She is better than a mum,” said Jefferson as he looked at Julie on a sunny day in the garden when we visited a family with a difference.

Julie Browne and her partner Clive Hughes started fostering Jefferson when he was 15. And then, when he turned 18, he continued to live with them under a little-known scheme with a big impact.

Ealing Shared Lives has been run by Ealing Council for almost 30 years. It places adults who have additional needs with local families – either to live with them or to spend some regular time together.

Like with Jefferson, who is now 23 years old, it can be a full-time arrangement as an alternative to living in a care home. Or, alternatively, carers can help by providing respite care – giving other families a break, whether for a weekend, a day, or even a few hours.

‘They become part of your family’

Julie has five cared-for children living with her. Two under the Shared Lives scheme and three being fostered. The youngest is nine years old.

“Knowing that we can make a difference is what drives you on,” said Julie. “And they become part of your family – the youngest ones call us Nan and Grandad, and they all call each other brother and sister. It’s family, and that’s what it is.

“A lot of these children have been through hell. Two of ours were in three other placements in the space of a year before they came here. You need to let them realise they are needed, wanted and loved.”

‘I really enjoyed it and just kept going’

The road to Shared Lives, via fostering, all began years ago.

Julie said: “We have three birth children and the youngest has ADHD and another has autism, so I set up a support group when they were young which then grew into a charity offering a play service and advocacy. It also provided a school placement service for children excluded from school. I started to provide one of them with some respite care and had to register with the fostering service to do that – and that’s where it all began. I really enjoyed it and just kept going. I had a few short-term placements and it just crept up. I couldn’t say no to a young person in need.

Woman and young man sitting on a sofa in a living room
Julie and Jefferson relaxing on the sofa

“I’d heard about Shared Lives through the charity and the children have loved it here too so, when they reached 18, I went through Shared Lives so they could stay with us.”

‘There is a skill to it, but you learn it’

When asked whether she would recommend becoming a Shared Lives carer to others, Julie said: “Yes, I would. But you’ve got to want to do it and want to make a difference. I’ve always been a get-up-and-go person and, you know what they say: ‘ask a busy person’.

“I enjoy doing it, and being there for people, and having the knowledge that I’m helping.

“There is a skill to it, but you learn it. I wasn’t born patient – you learn it. You get to understand their condition and how best to work with them. It’s about being flexible, tolerant and understanding.”

In total, nine people live at the house. As well as Julie and Clive and the five kids, one of Julie’s birth daughters, and her partner, also live with them and are official respite carers.

“We are just one big, mad family,” laughed Julie, before going back to packing for a huge 18-person holiday that would see them all – and another nine members of the family – go away for a well- deserved, two-week summer break together.

‘A credit to the community’

Councillor Josh Blacker, the council’s cabinet member for healthy lives, said: “Shared Lives carers like Julie are such a credit to the community and we are looking to recruit more. Like her, some people who have fostered before might be particularly suitable – whether for short respite care or longer-term care in your home. However, you do not need any specific qualifications or experience to be a Shared Lives carer. If you are flexible, committed and caring – and have a spare bedroom – then our team would love to hear from you for a chat. Shared Lives carers are paid and receive ongoing training and support, as well as holidays.”

Want to find out more?

Visit the Ealing Shared Lives pages on the council’s website or you can call 020 8825 5166 or 020 8825 6323 or email FitzgeraldV@ealing.gov.uk and you can also read previous stories on Ealing Shared Lives families on this website, such as the Husseins.

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