Bringing hope out of despair

TV personality and fundraising guru Esther Rantzen received an honorary degree from the University in 2009 in recognition of her significant work in promoting the welfare of vulnerable children through the media. This year marks the 25th anniversary of ChildLine, the first national helpline for children and young people that Esther founded, and she returned to the University recently to present a guest lecture about the charity’s important work.

The mobile phone has transformed the way we communicate. For some, the constant ringing and pinging of smart phones is an annoyance while to others it is the means by which they socialise, plan and organise every aspect of their lives.

But one unexpected benefit of the emergence of mobile phones is that it enables vulnerable children to reach out to charities such as ChildLine.

The free, confidential counselling service offers a lifeline to children dealing with painful situations including bullying, problems at school, depression, alcoholism, loneliness and sexual abuse. And while children used to have to wait for it to be safe to use a landline to call ChildLine, they can now use a mobile phone whenever they need.

A new book by Esther Rantzen traces the development of ChildLine to where it is today, helping thousands of children a year from 12 bases across the UK. Running Out of Tears is the story of some of the children who contacted the charity over the years.

“I wanted to find some people who are adults now and talk to them about the reasons they had called and how it had helped. I found that some had rung once while others rang many times, but either way it was transformative,” the former That’s Life! presenter explains.

“Why did it transform their lives? They were children living in really painful situations at home and they could not see any way out. Sometimes they were threatened into silence or too ashamed to ask for help. They were basically in despair and could find no way out of their situation.

“To speak to someone who would say this is not your fault and you are valuable, made all the difference. That lifting of self-esteem was like bringing sunshine into their lives.”

Support

Esther is an honorary graduate of the University, and was invited by the School for Education Futures to give a guest lecture to over 100 people about the 25th anniversary of ChildLine. In the first 48 hours after ChildLine’s launch, the phone lines were jammed by children talking about abuse they had not been able to talk about to anyone else.

Over the years, the counselling service has grown, with a vital online presence providing additional support to children who may find it difficult to put their problems into words over the phone, and a discussion board where children can support each other.

The problems children contact ChildLine about have changed over the course of its existence.

Esther says: “When we opened up the lines, the biggest problem was sexual abuse. The most common problems now are serious relationship problems within the family. I want us to analyse why. It could be that there aren’t extended family networks anymore.

“I also think the family meal time is a huge loss. It is not the same with people grabbing a curry and going off to watch their own screen. We need to talk to each other to build these relationships.”

But despite the painful, terrifying and disturbing stories at the heart of Running Out of Tears, Esther’s book is really a message of hope. While the stories may be tough, the over-riding message is not one of despair and positive stories emerge from the darkness.

“Another thing I learned writing the book was that these young people have gone on to become teachers, nurses, social workers and charity workers,” Esther explains.

“My daughter Rebecca says saved children save other children. But you don’t hear about the upward spiral.

“The book shows that these calls have been transformative. We work within the perimeters set by the child, and encourage them to think about who cares about them and who they can talk to. We encourage them to pretend to talk to that person, and the roleplay gives the child confidence. The actual conversation may be nothing like that, but saying the words out loud can really help the child.”

Impressive career

Now Esther is turning her expertise to a new venture inspired by ChildLine. She hopes to launch a helpline for vulnerable and isolated older people to provide vital information and advice to pensioners on everything from reporting abuse and neglect, to accessing befriending services and how to use online banking.

Esther’s career has included presenting the consumer programme That’s Life!, which ran for 21 years, and hosting her own chat shows on BBC and ITV. She chaired ChildLine for 20 years and is currently its President, as well as a Trustee of the NSPCC since its merger with ChildLine in 2005. She has appeared in Strictly Come Dancing for the BBC, and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! for ITV. She has even turned her hand to politics, standing as an Independent candidate for Luton South in the 2010 General Election.

Esther has received a number of awards, including the OBE for services to broadcasting, and the CBE for services to children. And in September 2009, she added to her list of achievements and awards with an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Social Science from the University of Wolverhampton.

Professor Kit Field is Dean of the School for Education Futures, and welcomed Esther to the stage for her lecture.

He says: “ChildLine has transformed the lives of millions of children who have felt trapped and unable to escape sometimes terrifying circumstances. The achievements of ChildLine are testament to Esther’s determination and vision, and hearing her experiences provided insight and inspiration to our students, many of whom will go on to work in a range of careers with children. We are extremely proud to count her among our honorary graduates.”

While the University honour recognised Esther personally, she views it as a broader acknowledgment of the achievements of the successful charity she founded.

She says: “I’m really pleased and proud to be a doctor. It means a lot to me. Not because it measures what you think of me, but what it means is that ChildLine is valued.”