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Red Balloon mark 25 years of helping young people rebuild their lives

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This year is something of a milestone for one of Cambridge’s much-loved charities. It’s 25 years since Red Balloon took in its first student – a young girl who was being so badly bullied at school that she became suicidal.

Daniel Hotchner outside Red Balloon on Warkworth Terrace, Cambridge Picture: Keith Heppell
Daniel Hotchner outside Red Balloon on Warkworth Terrace, Cambridge Picture: Keith Heppell

All these years later, Red Balloon continues to be a haven for children too frightened to go to school because of severe bullying, mental health problems or trauma. And from humble beginnings around the kitchen table of the founder, Carrie Herbert, Red Balloon has gone from strength to strength.

Carrie explains that there are three tenets on which the charity’s programme is based: “Scared children need not only individually tailored education, but therapy and wellbeing in equal measure, so they can get back on an even keel. These are complemented by community and creative activities to help them re-engage with the world again. With this blend of support, children can grow academically, emotionally and socially.”

Red Balloon now has four Centres across the south east, as well as an online provision called Red Balloon of the Air. Today over 200 young people study with Red Balloon at any one time, from 12 counties. Since 1996 over 1,000 children have got their lives back on track thanks to Red Balloon’s unique programme. They clearly thrive, and each year over 90 per cent return to mainstream school, go on to college or into employment.

And it appears that the demand for the charity’s services is on the rise. In research commissioned by Red Balloon in 2011, it found that over 16,000 11 to 15-year-olds were absent from state schools in England, citing bullying as the primary reason. Since then, bullying has escalated. In its 2020 annual bullying survey, the charity ‘Ditch the Label’ reported that bullying had increased by 25 per cent in the preceding year, with one in four young people having been physically attacked and one in three having experienced bullying on online platforms.

Before Daniel joined Red Balloon Cambridge in Warkworth Terrace, he had been severely bullied at secondary school.

He told the Cambridge Independent: “I arrived late in the school year after having an operation and I was instantly the outsider. The teachers weren’t supportive, and I was absolutely miserable. I was horrendously bullied.”

Daniel struggled on and started another school: “But by now I was ill with post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and anxiety.”

So he had to leave that school too, after which he spent a year in a psychiatric hospital. That’s when he found Red Balloon.

Red Balloon Centres are based in large domestic houses, which are more reassuring to children who have had such negative experiences at school. There are only 20 students on roll.

Carrie explains: “By the time children arrive with us, they’ve had a devastating time so we have to begin by supporting them to trust teachers and their peers again. We have a fantastic team of therapists, mentors and teachers who help them rebuild their self-confidence and engage with others.

Carrie Herbert (Founder) and Ruth Loshak (Red Balloon Cambridge's first co-ordinator) (45597638)
Carrie Herbert (Founder) and Ruth Loshak (Red Balloon Cambridge's first co-ordinator) (45597638)

“For many, their mental health has been so poor that they’ve lost all sight of what their futures could be. For these reasons, students negotiate what they want to learn and how – so if history is their passion we can introduce maths or English concepts into their history project, as well as the creative arts, humanities and sciences. Classes are small - rarely more than four students, so each can get the individual support and challenges they need.”

Daniel appreciated Red Balloon’s ethos: “Things at Red Balloon were quieter, more relaxed, and it felt more comfortable. The teachers were supportive and there was a big sense of them wanting me to do well. They treated me as an equal and someone to be respected, which was really important for me.”

He thrived under the charity’s care: “I think my biggest achievement, corny though it sounds, was actually getting GCSEs, because I didn’t think that would be possible when I joined.”

Daniel is now 28 and studying pharmacology at university, as well as setting up his own business. He thanks Red Balloon for being there at the right time for him and helping him to prepare for the future.

“If I hadn’t gone to Red Balloon, I’d probably be back in the psychiatric hospital. Red Balloon was emotionally stimulating and taught me a lot about managing social interactions as well as treating others as equal. Being on equal terms with teachers with first names has definitely enabled me to form my network of pharmacology contacts, which is what got me where I am today”.

While anniversaries are opportunities to reflect, the charity is also keen to look forward. So Daniel is one of Red Balloon’s alumni sharing their stories to help raise awareness of its new Future Fund appeal. The charity has big plans including opening a new Centre in West Sussex, as well as expanding existing ones. Red Balloon Cambridge was the first to do this when it opened its second building, in Norfolk Street, in November, doubling its numbers. Red Balloon is also planning to extend its online service to reach even more children who live too far from a centre, or are simply too frightened to leave home.

The charity has an exciting timetable of activities ahead, including a fundraising Blog for Red Balloon Day and a Red Balloon Ride, as well as commemorative occasions such as burying time capsules. It is also encouraging supporters to become Friends of Red Balloon and contributing every month by setting up a regular gift.

Carrie concludes: “We know times are challenging at the moment and supporting charities can be difficult, so we are grateful for any help. Giving a gift would be the very best way to celebrate 25 years, as it will help us look to the future and help thousands more children to become happy, well-educated, contributing members of society.”

Read more about the Future Fund at redballoonlearner.org/25th.

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