Grenfell children still have panic attacks five years on, says youth worker

Emma Butt set up Nova Youth to help youngsters aged nine to 14 affected by the tragedy.

13 June 2022

A woman who set up a youth group to support children affected by the Grenfell Tower fire has said that, while they still suffer from panic attacks five years on from the tragedy, the work has given them “a sense of stability and identity”.

Nova Youth, a branch of community grassroots charity Nova, is a leadership and development project which aims to improve communication, leadership and resilience skills of children aged nine to 14 affected by the fire in 2017.

Emma Butt, 27, is an information, advice and guidance adviser at Nova who started the youth group two years ago. It has helped more than 100 “resilient” children who lived in the tower, knew someone who did, or are from the surrounding area.

“A lot of the children I work with, there’s a huge lack of confidence,” she told the PA news agency.

Grenfell Tower
The children affected by the Grenfell Tower fire still suffer from panic attacks five years on from the tragedy, a youth worker said (Nova Youth/PA)

“It’s hard to say that (it is) because of the tragedy or lockdown or a combination of both… (but) there is a lot of them quite hesitant to try new things.

“I’ve had quite a lot of children in the group have panic attacks when we’ve been in public spaces because they’ve become very overwhelmed with what’s going on.”

Ms Butt secured funding for the project through the Grenfell Young People’s Fund from the London Community Foundation.

The work involves taking part in career-focused workshops and group trips in a bid to boost their confidence and improve their skills.

One recent outing included a visit to Imperial College London, where the youngsters were introduced to coding with the help of a researcher and took part in an escape-room style activity where they had to help a stranded astronaut land safely back on Earth through different coding exercises.

Ms Butt said: “It gives them stability and it gives them a sense of identity as well with the opportunity to build relationships outside of school and their family home.

“It gives them options and another place to go if something in their life doesn’t go well.

“If they’re not enjoying school and they don’t like being at home then they’ve got another safe space that they can go to and a whole other community that they can get support from.”

But Ms Butt has also noticed the lasting effects of the disaster on parents and carers connected with the group.

“(The children) have been pretty resilient – they are pretty open to talking about how it affected them when I’ve managed to build up that relationship with them,” she said.

“But I do find that the parents and carers, it stayed with them.

“And I don’t know whether that’s because they know the full extent of what happened, but I do feel like the parents and carers are still suffering whereas I do see some positive development in the children moving forward from the tragedy.”

Grenfell Tower
Grenfell Tower (PA)

Ms Butt added that the group itself was set up in response to a lack of funding from Kensington and Chelsea Council.

“I think the council just assumed they’d done their bit and decided it was time, when actually people were struggling before the fire happened,” she said.

“And I think the fire just brought all of those issues to the surface of lack of adequate housing and appropriate services.

“And I’m sure you’re aware of how badly (Kensington and Chelsea Council) responded to the tragedy so I think they threw a lot of money at it and then that money dried up quite quickly, and they thought ‘Well, we’ve sort of done our bit and it’s time to move on’.”

She hopes to continue the work at Nova Youth with a residential trip to Wiltshire this summer and is eyeing another “chunk” of funding, detailing how the project has helped one of the children in the group who has autism.

“The numbers speak for themselves with the positive growth and confidence, and access to new opportunities have been really good for the group,” she said.

“When this child first started, he didn’t speak at all in the group and he stood behind me at all times.

“Fast forward a year, with lots of encouragement… I managed to get him into a climbing club that the youth group did every Tuesday.

“And he’s made two new friends outside of the youth group and now they see each other outside.

“And he managed to climb to the top of the wall within six weeks of the lessons, which he couldn’t do before – he wouldn’t even take one foot off the ground, you’d get a bit of distress.

“It was very slow progress, but then he was like Spider Man.”

Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council Elizabeth Campbell said: “On the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell tragedy, and always, our first and last thoughts are with those who lost their lives, their families, and their friends.

“The bereaved and survivors continue to show incredible strength, courage, and solidarity, as they search for truth and justice.

“I’ve always been humbled by their dignity and have tried to listen and learn from them throughout my time as leader.

“They have set us the challenge of being the best council – something I intend to strive towards. It is something my leadership team and I are serious about – a meaningful legacy.”

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