Surviving and thriving as a care leaver: in conversation with Kim Emenike


Earlier this year I had the pleasure of speaking with Kim Emenike, a Civil Service Fast Streamer who grew up in the foster care system, about how she navigated the unique challenges of her background while trying to build a career.

Kim was placed into care at the tender age of 7 after her mother died of cancer, her father was absent, and there were no other blood relatives to look after her. She remained in care until age 17 when she moved into a hostel with no support from her social workers or foster carer. At the hostel she encountered all kinds of chaos and instability which affected her ability to study for her A Levels, on top of not feeling prepared for independent living. Despite this, she made it to university, where she studied International Business. However, although social services supported her entry to university, they were hands off when she arrived. So, Kim felt deeply lonely in her First Year, with such an abrupt transition into adulthood. 

You can read more about Kim’s story in this BBC article, but in the spirit of Bounce Black, I sat down (virtually) with Kim to explore how she navigated that transition and came out on top. Here are some highlights of our conversation:

How did you find the transition into work in general?

Kim: I started work in October 2020, and the pandemic hit in full flow in March 2020. So, I began work from home, and hadn’t met my team or seen them in real life. Everything was virtual, and it felt different. I had done a placement year while I was at university, but my job was one of those where I was never allowed to work from home. I was always in the office, working long hours. So, it was a transition from that experience to working from home 24/7, which is a lot more relaxed. 

It’s been an interesting transition, and there was nothing to really prepare me for it because everything was trial and error. Nobody knew how they were going to adjust. Having that kind of uncertainty affected my experience of the world of work. It’s been about making the best of a bad situation, but I think my team has been great. Everyone was just trying their best. 

At university, there is a lack of structure and routine, so transitioning into an environment with a full routine is definitely difficult, but working from home relaxes it a bit. You make your own rhythm and you make it work for you. 

How have you adjusted to corporate culture as a Black female care leaver?

Kim: I am used to being in spaces in which I am the only Black female and I think it’s naturally difficult to adjust, but thankfully my team are more open.

Normally, the sort of things that make me feel uncomfortable in a work environment is when, for example, you bring in your jollof rice and chicken, and someone makes a comment like “eww, what’s that smell?!” Those kinds of things I haven’t really experienced while working virtually. So, I will eat my pounded yam and egusi, and there’s nobody to say anything. 

[Mutual laughter ensues]

In all honesty, I wouldn’t say I’ve experienced anything negative. I think working from home minimises microaggressions. 

Sharing my story has also helped as I have learned that people are watching. I joined my team around the time I was featured in a BBC article. So, that has created opportunities for influence and shaping programmes like the Civil Service Care Leavers internship. For example, I have had different people reach out to me to celebrate me, including senior leaders in my workplace and another care leaver. I wasn’t expecting it. So many people have reached out to me because of it, which shows that firms are progressing.

What are the tools, resources and networks that have helped you get by during low points? 

Kim: Starting with formal networks, I remember when I was at university and I had a bit of a mental breakdown. I didn’t really know who to go to because uni is such a big space, it’s so easy to get lost because there’s so much going on, it’s a new environment. In First Year, you’re a bit timid and nervous. 

When I was having this breakdown, I didn’t know where to go. So, I actually emailed my pastoral care manager from secondary school, and told her I was having a mental breakdown and didn’t know what to do. I really was shutting down. She called up my university and explained my situation to them, and they got in contact with me. They gave me emergency counselling, and told me to come and speak to them as and when I need to. So, that was really good for me in First Year of uni.

Then I remember in Fourth Year, my personal tutor was absolutely amazing. I couldn’t have asked for a better personal tutor. I used to get a lot of exam stress, and that’s something that has always impacted me. I was under a lot of pressure to improve my grades, so I’d reach out to her regularly, and she was great.

Equally, I’m very blessed to have a good support network in terms of friends, and I have faith in God, so my faith is something that carries me every single day. I always say “without God, I don’t know where I would be”. As cliche as it sounds, it’s the reality. That’s the one constant in my whole life, from when I was born until now. So, those are the kinds of things that helped me.

How do you manage your mental health now? 

Kim: Now, when I have my off days and my low days, I like to get more involved in things that I’m passionate about. That’s something that has really helped my mental wellbeing. 

Sometimes you have your work life, but outside of work you’re like “who am I? What’s my purpose? What do I need to do in life?”. And sometimes that can be very overwhelming, especially with social media, where everyone’s a CEO, everyone’s this, everyone’s that. And you’re like “oh my gosh, I’m not doing that”. 

So, find something that brings you peace, and you’ll realise that if you invest yourself and your time into it, you’ll notice that that really does help you. For me it’s always care leaver related stuff. If I can mentor someone, if I can help facilitate a group, or just being involved in something, I realise that helps my wellbeing because it gives me that sense of purpose and belonging. 

What would you say to your younger self or someone else in the same position you were years ago?

Kim: If I was talking to myself or someone who went through a similar experience to me and is approaching transitions, or maybe they’re in a care system, or maybe someone’s just going through something, and they’re wondering “how am I going to get out?”.

Firstly, whatever you’re going through, don’t suffer in silence. That’s one of my biggest regrets, and I always say “never have regrets”, but let me be real. Knowing what I know now, if I could go back in time to when I was about 13-15, suffering in silence was the biggest cancer because it does so much damage. At the time, you’re afraid and you don’t have a safe space, but there are so many people who are out there to help. If you speak out, and you talk, there is someone.

When you’re going through something, you’re not the only one, so there’s always an organisation or a person that can help. So, if you’re going through something or you’re just anxious and something has happened, and it’s not right, please speak up. That’s one thing I really wish I did because not doing so resulted in me doing things that I know I wouldn’t have done had I spoken up, even stuff like self harm. People need that safe space to speak and sometimes you feel like you don’t have a safe space. Find an adult or someone that genuinely has good intentions for you, and speak up about what you’re going through because no one is here to suffer on their own and no one should have to. There are things in place and provisions to help, you just have to put yourself out there.

Any last words? 

Kim: You will bounce back. When you go through trials and tribulations, it’s not forever. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. As cliche as it is, it’s so true. Even when I look back, when I graduated from uni, I had a panic attack every single day for three weeks. Even though I had a graduate job lined up, it was fear of not knowing what tomorrow would look like, I don’t know what my transition’s going to be like. At that point, I was homeless and I remember thinking “I don’t even have permanent accommodation”, but one thing I look back and say is, it’s not forever. It’s always just a period of time, and there are always people that can help. 

No one should ever feel like they’re going through something alone. So, even when you’re at your lowest, honestly, just ask for help. There’s no shame in it. In Black culture, sometimes it feels like asking for help is a weakness or you shouldn’t do it because of pride, but had I got help before, I would be in a much better place. There are so many people who’ve got so much love and support to give, and the resources to help and the time. There’s no shame in it. Whatever you’re going through, it won’t last, and that’s something I really want to stress.

Every morning, I wake up and I tell myself I’m unstoppable. Despite all the odds and adversity I’ve faced, I still say to myself “Kim, whatever you want to achieve, I’m going to achieve because I believe in me.” Motivate yourself and surround yourself with like-minded people. I have mentors who celebrate my achievements and challenge me. They hold me accountable and push me towards my goals. 

And remember it’s a journey. Sometimes we look at life as a race, but it’s a journey, which means there are highs, lows, mountains and everything. But you will get there. It’s not about running, sprinting and burning yourself out. It’s about going at a pace that you can manage. 

Thank you so much for sharing your story, Kim. You’re such an inspiration! 

Kim: No problem. I really believe in this. I really want to help. I’ve been through a lot in life, and so many people have poured into me. I feel like I’m now at a place where I can pour into others and I can give back.

Read more about Kim’s journey in and beyond care in her interview with the BBC here.

Support resources for care leavers:

  • BECOME: The charity for children and young people in care
  • Propel: Resources for care leavers entering higher education

“When you’re going through something, you’re not the only one, so there’s always an organisation or a person that can help” – Check out @KimEmenike’s inspiring journey as a #CareLeaver in her interview with @iBounceBlack:

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