Free to Be Kids
Growing children's emotional health
helps some of the most disadvantaged children in London to change their stories about who they are and who they can become.
All of our projects are about helping children with very limited experiences of nature or the countryside, the majority of whom have never been on holiday before or have no safe space to play outside in London, to get outdoors and enjoy the breathing space, freedom, and sense of possibility and joy, that a break away from home in the countryside can bring. Many of our children struggle to engage with more traditional forms of help. Families often distrust professionals and children arrive with very limited horizons, feeling they are somehow broken, 'a problem', or a failure.
We use adventures in the outdoors, residential breaks designed to build confidence and self-worth, one-to-one mentoring and youth leadership programmes, to support vulnerable children to feel included, proud and successful, often for the first time in a long time. In turn this transforms their capacity to believe in themselves, to reach their full potential, and ultimately to do better at school and in relationships with others. Free to Be projects are built around our belief that every child deserves to experience joy and adventure within their childhood. By getting a bit muddy, learning to care for animals, working together to build a raft and paddle across a lake, or camping out under the stars for the first time, we help children with limited expectations of themselves to see just how much they really can achieve.
We're a small but rapidly growing charity focused on doing the small things well. We build our programmes around the energy, creativity and dedication brought by large numbers of committed volunteers, and every year we receive thousands' of hours' of donated time, helping us create amazing childhood memories for children from extremely difficult backgrounds.
Free To Be
98% of young people we supported in 2018 showed an increase in social confidence or self-esteem. 82% showed a very significant increase.
99% developed new social skills, including better managing frustration or better trusting and working with adults.
100% of schools reported lasting changes in emotional wellbeing and behaviour, including children's increased capacity to work with others and improved belief in their own potential.
Jordan, aged 15
What we do
Our programmes help children who are struggling develop a healthier view of their own capacity, supporting them to do better at school, in relationships, and in the wider world. Building trust with children who have had experienced harm, rejection, or other childhood trauma takes time. That’s why our first piece of work with any child is to take them on a fun, immersive five-day project, packed with new experiences, adventures, and opportunities to feel successful. We call these ‘Gateway Projects’. Based in beautiful outdoor settings, typical activities include den building in the forest, grooming horses and bottle feeding baby calves at the farm, cooking dinner over a campfire and adventuring through the woods by candlelight.
The 60 hours we spend alongside a child on a gateway project is equivalent to a year’s worth of home or clinic visits by a social worker or other professional. Spending such quality time with children who aren’t used to it and being alongside them through situations which challenge and stretch them, allows us to get to know them on a deeper level than is possible via traditional forms of assessment, building a working relationship that is different to those the children have experienced before.
Gateway projects also allow us time to explore which of our longer term programmes fit best for children needing ongoing support, and help them to trust us enough to engage in it. Those needing the most intensive support join our Journey Projects, which span a year and involve groups of 8-10 children learning and working together over four residentials, using individually tailored challenges, group work and reflection to work on their own specific challenges and life skills. Other children and young people work with us through regular one to one mentoring with a dedicated volunteer, or join our Young Leaders’ Programme where they are coached to support younger children, building their leadership and communication skills along the way.
Across all our programmes, the outcomes for children, many of whom have made little progress with other forms of support, are outstanding.
Our story and our growth
Free to Be was launched in 2015, and is built on the belief that organisations need heart, soul and vibrancy, as well as safe and efficient working practices, to nurture the most vulnerable children.
For its first two and a half years, Free to Be was run entirely by volunteers, with no paid staff. The two co-founders worked unpaid, leading projects, raising funds and building infrastructure, until the organisation had grown to reach 10 London Boroughs, working with 22 referral partners. By this point, having recruited over 100 volunteers, Free to Be was providing intensive respite breaks and support for over 120 children, as well as providing term-time support to others. In 2018, we did it all again, becoming accredited by London Youth, and securing salary funding to employ the charity's first two staff members. Ultimately, Free to Be is a charity centred around the concept that people coming together with passion and commitment can achieve great things. We're proud of our determination and can do approach - our staff and volunteers go the extra mile to get the job done, whether it's sticking with a young person through the wind and the rain as they figure their way through a problem, or learning new skills ourselves to respond to challenges as they arise. (Like teaching ourselves a bit of video editing and web design to build this site!)
Our work has recently been endorsed by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, through his Young Londoners Fund, and by The Fore Trust, who identify and incubate exceptional early stage charities. We'd love to add FTI as our first major corporate partner to help us make the next step change in our exciting development.
What FTI's support would mean
FTI's support as our first ever major corporate charity partner would be transformational for a charity of our size and stage of development.
Your professional expertise and pro bono support would help us in tackling the challenges we’ll be facing as we scale and, in promoting what we do, you’d be raising our profile, adding real value by allowing us to engage with and leverage support from wider audiences.
Your fundraising would cover the full direct costs of growing our Journey Programme over the next two years, allowing us to offer a full year of tailored and intensive support to up to 60 of our most vulnerable children. You’d fund the best outdoor activities to challenge and stretch children's perceptions of themselves, cover staffing and volunteer costs to ensure they were supported by our teams of responsive and dedicated adults and looked after throughout – staying in inspiring settings and enjoying nurturing, home-cooked meals. In total, over the course of the two-year partnership, your funding would pay for 12,000 hours of direct support. For each child, equating to over four years worth of weekly clinic or home visits from social workers or other agencies.
Because of our low overheads, extensive use of volunteers and strong local links, your vote would ensure FTI's support goes further, directly funding support to children who need it.
Jade (12) witnessed serious domestic violence whilst younger, has no contact with her Dad, and a very difficult relationship with her Mum. She had no friends other than online acquaintances, and hadn’t left the house socially in over a year, resulting in her only attending school for 20 days in 2017. Despite having a social worker, outreach worker and CAMHS worker, at huge cost, little change had occurred in years and there were real concerns about depression and risk of exploitation.
Despite her difficulties leaving the house, Jade agreed to trial coming on a week’s residential with Free to Be – simply as a break. Whilst with us she was part of a group for the first time in a year. She had close support from empathetic volunteers, learned to light a campfire, walk through the woods in the dark, and canoe across a lake. When she capsized, her new friends helped her out of the water. Instead of feeling stuck, angry and alone, Jade was helped to feel adventurous, included, purposeful and successful. By the end of the project Jade was smiling, no longer isolated and had made a good group of friends. She was supported to have fun, challenge herself in ways which felt manageable, and begin to talk through challenges rather than avoid them.
Spending over 60 hours’ of positive, affirming time with adults , equating to more than a year’s worth of social work or similar intervention, provided the intensive support Jade needed to begin to feel differently about herself and the world. Jade is now working with a mentor from Free to Be, whom she feels able to trust having spent time with them on the residential. She is keen to volunteer as a Young Leader, is attending a youth group local to her house, and is beginning to re-engage with school. Funding from FTI would allow us to extend our support to Jade to ensure the change sticks.
Last year Dylan (aged 9) told teachers that he and his mum had been made homeless and were living in a derelict warehouse with no water, electricity or heating. Dylan’s mum struggled with mental health problems and there were real concerns about neglect. Although they were soon re-housed, Dylan’s school were worried that Dylan’s view of himself was in tatters. He never felt brave enough to answer questions in class, had no friends at school, and when asked what he would like to be when he grew up, answered “someone else”.
Dylan came on a Free to Be gateway project this summer. He was helped to feel brave enough to climb the leap of faith, worked in a group to navigate the woods at night, and lay by the campfire telling stories and sharing memories with the other boys in his group - something he would never have felt confident enough to do in school. Now matched to a Free to Be mentor whom he trusts having already met them during the residential, Dylan’s school are thrilled with his progress. He has made new friendships, presents as much more positive, and is doing much better academically.
Meena (11)’s mum struggles with mental health issues. Meena has no contact with her father and her elder brother is in prison.
Earlier this year Meena sent a note by text message, saying she wanted to commit suicide. Although attending counselling as a result, she would clam up not feeling able to speak, and school described her as regularly presenting as sad, alone, defiant and angry. Meena struggles with body image, and gets little or no exercise. Mum turned down the school’s offer of group support and school had reached a point where they could no longer cope.
Meena agreed to trial coming on a Free to Be residential break in August 2018. On the first night she was too shy to join in a game of tag because she felt the other girls would laugh at her for not being able to run far. By the end of the week, the group cheered her on when she ran with them from one side of the football pitch to the other. It took our volunteers over half an hour to coax her into a kayak, but when she eventually risked it and paddled out into the lake, she was grinning from ear to ear. Immediately afterwards, she asked to phone home and proudly told her mum all about it. At the end of the week, Meena told us she had pushed herself to try so many new things and couldn't believe what she had managed to do. FTI funding would help pay for Meena to return on a year’s worth of follow up projects to build on the progress she’s made so far.
"Free to Be has really changed my life. The attention I got from the adults was just unreal. I could actually trust someone outside my family and that was really helpful. Before, I wasn’t really an outgoing person, but it's weird because now I’m motivated to do things - it unlocked that door for me."
Jordan, Aged 15
(Excluded from school age 13, now helping train our other Young Leaders)