Sikira (19) was dealt a rough hand early in life - an abusive father, a neglectful, alcoholic mother who was hospitalised for six months after going into a coma, and then separation from siblings when she entered foster care aged seven. Even now, although she meets her two brothers occasionally, she has not seen her younger sister for three years as her sister’s adoptive parents won’t allow it. “I’ll just have to wait till she’s older and can legally decide herself,” she says.
As a result of her early childhood, Sikira was diagnosed with severe depression before she went into foster care and has since suffered from anxiety and a sensory disorder; she found it hard to find anything that gave her joy. Primary school was a nightmare - she didn’t attend school regularly until year 5.
Secondary school beckoned ominously and again she struggled to keep up, failing all her Sats tests. She was often dogged by depression and increasingly clear memories of former bad times. “When you are younger, some of your worst memories are suppressed but you get to a point where these memories come back and they just knock you,” she says. “You have to deal with it and try and do something that makes you happy.
“I can’t show emotion in front of other people because of how I grew up. As a young child, I was sent to therapy but the course lasted 6-8 weeks and then it was over - the NHS doesn’t actually supply the long-term therapy that children need.”
She also hadn’t bargained on the stigma foster children often face in schools - she had to cope with certain teachers’ prejudiced views about foster children being lazy and not wanting to learn and be successful in life.
“They’d actually tell me I wouldn’t succeed and get anywhere. ‘There’s no point you trying for GCSEs,’ they’d say. ‘It’s your fault you are in care and people like you just go on and do alcohol, drugs and so on.’ ”
By the time GCSE courses came round, however, Sikira had had enough. It was a key moment of change and much was thanks to three individuals. One was her foster mother.
After a short spell with her first foster family, Sikira had moved aged nine to a new foster home. “A lot of foster parents just look after you and don’t see you as family, but my foster mum has been different and does so much more. She’s helped me in so many ways with my GCSEs, with the college course I wanted. Whenever I needed a part-time job she’d put the word around."
Sikira had at last found a sound home base. What she needed now was an ally at school. “In every year but one at secondary school, I had the same English teacher, who began to alter the way she taught me to enable me to get the grades I needed. She gave up her lunch breaks and put on two-hour sessions after school that helped me pass all my GCSEs at grade D or above.
“She was always there if I wanted to talk to her when other teachers had upset me. ‘Don’t listen to them,’ she’d say, ‘you can do what you want to do.’ ”
Having this constant support encouraged Sikira to report unhelpful teacher comments to the head, who arranged for heads of departments to teach her differently in ways she learned best. “When I was told I could not achieve something, I’d push back and succeed. I decided people were not going to put me down anymore!”
After gaining a clutch of GCSEs, what next? Catering was Sikira’s best grade, just three marks off an A. She’d picked up a love of baking from her foster mum, whose father was a chef. “I’d started making cakes at home and found I got some joy from it. With my background, I’d always found it hard to find something that makes me happy.”
She began a cookery course at St Austell College, completed levels 1-3 of an instruction in professional cookery course, and this year became the only student in the college to take an advanced level 3 professional chef diploma. The advanced course focuses mainly on management, budgeting, team leadership and menu preparation - essential skills for students aiming for an eventual head chef position.
“One lecturer, in particular, was so supportive; she just pushed and pushed me. I was in a really bad place at the time. I wouldn’t talk to people and I had no confidence. But her constant encouragement helped so much that I ended up running a kitchen where I was placed in charge of an advanced level 3 group while I was only at level 2!”
“She believed in me and told me I had talent. After lessons, she’d call me aside and discuss what went well, what I could improve on, and how I felt about it.
“Someone at the college once told me: ‘You won't succeed or have the willpower to do anything, you’re just here to be here. I told my lecturer who [like my English teacher] said I must not let people stop me. She’d seen how much progress I’d made. She could see I was down so we ended up cooking a dish together, tasting it and then discussing its good points and how to improve it. Doing that showed me I could do it.”
The college adapted how it taught Sikira to suit her learning style. “Being anxious, I needed to know about things before they took place. My college would email my foster mum about what specific lessons were happening so I could prepare for them.”
Her lecturers worked out early on that she required more space than other students to concentrate and worked better on her own. If she needed a five-minute break any time, she was free to take it. Termly reviews gave students or their personal representatives a chance to talk about things that bothered them.
But her lecturer left two years ago to do private chefing. “It was hard to handle,” says Sikira. “Change is quite a big thing for me. My anxiety disorder meant it took me a while to get used to her replacement who was also the new chef in our college restaurant - but now it’s really good. He’s pushing me like my last lecturer did. He leaves me to run the restaurant and trusts me to the extent he feels he does not always need to check my work.”
When Sikira finishes her course next year, she will take up a job offer at a well-known restaurant in her region.
Future plans include a stint on private yachts - “you get the best ingredients to work with!” - and then a possible return to college to do a level 4 in cookery management.
Her next main menu item, though, is taking part in a cookery demonstration in front of some 300 people at the Padstow Christmas Festival. “The cooks got me to help on stage washing up last year - I could not even stand up before two or three people before then,” says Sikira. “So being actually part of the demo this year should really help my confidence!”
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