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I had no future.. my foster mum saved my life; EVERY 22 MINUTES A CHILD HAS TO BE PUT INTO FOSTER CARE. IT'S A SHOCKING STATISTIC AND SHOWS THE SHEER SCALE OF THE PROBLEM. HERE, FOSTERED APPRENTICE STAR STELLA ENGLISH SHARES HER STORY. BY FIONA CUMMINS.

Byline: FIONA CUMMINS

When she was just four years old, Stella English was left alone to roam the streets of her crime-ridden estate.

Dressed in ill-fitting clothes and ravenous with hunger, the frightened little girl would run the gauntlet of drug pushers, pimps and gangs to scavenge for food.

Fast-forward three decades and this intelligent mum of two is a former winner of BBC1's The Apprentice and a successful entrepreneur.

So how did this troubled youngster, who rarely went to school and spent days in a curtain-less bedroom, escape such a dire upbringing? Put simply, it was down to her great aunt, namesake and beloved foster mum Stella Brockman.

She says: "I was so sad and lonely. I had no future. She saved my life."

At the beginning of Barnardo's Foster Care Fortnight, Stella speaks movingly of the indomitable woman who rescued her from a bleak existence on the notorious Thamesmead Estate in South East London, when she was 10.

Still raw with grief - her foster mum died last month, aged 92, after a brief battle with cancer, Stella says tearfully: "She was my mother, my best friend and my inspiration, and she taught me everything."

Two years ago, Stella won the pounds 100,000-a-year job at Lord Alan Sugar's company Viglen. It's particularly impressive given her nightmarish childhood.

Abandoned by her father before she was born, Stella lived with her mother.

"It was a very hostile environment. I was about three or four and I used to wander the streets day and night," she says.

"I was bullied by other children because I looked a mess. We didn't have a washing machine so Mum used to wash clothes in the bath and they were all stretched.

"When I was about six, I'd try and iron my own damp clothes."

Stella, 32, adds: "Mum was bad at managing money. We'd have food for three days and wouldn't eat for four."

Stella - a precociously bright child who, at four, demanded to see her birth certificate as she didn't believe she was related to her mum - found herself playing the role of mother. "I sorted out the bills d did th h i W d t and did the shopping. We used to get our windows smashed in once a week and I'd make the calls to get it boarded up.

"It was very stressful. I used to do things like bite myself so somebody would notice something was wrong."

Police and social services finally intervened when a family friend raised the alarm.

"Social services rang around the family but no one would take me. I was seen as a naughty child. It didn't seem to occur to anyone that there might be a problem at home. Eventually, the social worker said, 'I think it's time to call your auntie Stella'.

"The next day, and I remember this so clearly, Stella turned up and said, 'Pack your bags. You're coming with me'. That it Sh 72 b t h did 't was it. She was 72 but she didn't think twice."

Widowed Stella had already brought up three children of her own and ran a tight ship at her home in Langley, Berks.

Stella was made to get up on time, attend grammar school where she often had three hours of homework to do a night, and get a job in a chip shop.

"I was used to doing what I wanted so I found it incredibly difficult but looking back, I can see she was doing me a great service by teaching me how to be self-sufficient.

"She took the responsibility of being my foster mother seriously, it was the making of me."

Even when Stella, aged 14, briefly returned to her mother, then ran away and went badly off the rails, the pair remained in close contact.

Young Stella turned to drink and drugs, her weight plunged to six stone and she suffered severe scurvy and malnourishment. Close to death, she went home to her mother, who sent her down to the Jobcentre.

This led to a stint at Kent's Bexley College, an apprenticeship and eventually a job at global investment bank Merrill Lynch.

Five years on, Stella met her builder husband Ray Dewar, 40, and they have two sons, Edward, six and Frank, three. She's in talks with several retailers about a clothing line.

After quitting her job in Lord Sugar's empire, she lodged papers with an employment tribunal, claiming she'd been forced out of the business after quitting her job two months before her contract expired.

Lord Sugar and other staff declined to comment afterwards but another source dismissed many of Stella's allegations.

Stella credits her great aunt with giving her the courage to leave Lord Sugar's company.

Stella was with her great aunt just hours before she died at her home in Clonakilty, near Cork, Ireland. She says: "It was traumatic beyond words to sit and watch someone I love dying but I was so grateful for the chance to tell her how thankful I was."

More than 8,750 new foster families need to be found this year for children going through the same as Stella, whose experience has left her with deep scars.

She says softly, "I've never told anybody this until now but I hadn't realised how it affected me until I went to stay with my mum when I was 20 and she started to shout. I just found myself rocking on my bed, covering my ears and screaming."

Fortunately, things have improved and Stella says: "Stella helped me and my mum rebuild our relationship - we're now extremely close and she's a great support to me. Stella helped both of us."

Stella and Ray are also hoping to foster a child in the future.

"I don't even want to think about what might have happened if Stella hadn't fostered me," she said. "I saw her as my angel. She was the mother I never had. Her death has left a big hole but she'll always be with me."

BARNARDO'S IS URGING MORE PEOPLE TO CONSIDER PUTTING THEMSELVES FORWARD AS POTENTIAL FOSTER CARERS - PARTICULARLY FOR SIBLINGS OR DISABLED CHILDREN. CONTACT BARNARDO'S ON 0800 027 7280 OR VISIT BARNARDOS.ORG.UK/FOSTERINGANDADOPTION To anyone thinking of fostering, we say do it!

When sisters Amy and Tammy tragically lost their mum and their dad couldn't cope, they were put into care.

The girls, who were just seven and eight, were placed with former taxi driver Shaun and ex-shop assistant Karen McNeill, who fostered because they thought they couldn't go on to have children.

Now 10 years later - along with the surprise arrival of a son, Ryan, now seven - they are a loving, happy family.

"It's unbelievably rewarding to give kids a chance of another life and we love them as if they were our own," Shaun, 44, says. "It's a gradual process and Barnardo's takes you through it step by step. There's training before you foster and the children aren't just brought to your door and left!

"As long as you're child-centred, love children and want to invest in giving them a home and a future, you'll make a good foster parent."

Amy, now 17, says: "When I first came here I knew this was it. I knew they were going to love me and that they'd always be there for me."

Tammy, 18, adds: "I never thought I would have a life like this. To anyone who is thinking of fostering, I would say - do it! I see them as my real Mam and Dad and that's the way I want it to stay."

We wanted to take in those with disabilities For Jackie and Richard Parker, there was never any doubt they would devote their lives to fostering disabled children.

David, 19, who is deaf and has Scheuermann's disease, which causes curvature of the spine, came to live with the couple, from Kidderminster, Worcs, in 2001. The family was joined by Jamie, 16, who is autistic, five years later.

Jackie, 46, who grew up in a fostering household, explains: "We wanted to foster children with disabilities as they are overlooked."

Richard, 45, adds: "When a child comes into your home, they're quite bewildered."Our motivation is to provide stability."

The couple consulted their own children Adrienne, 20 and Forden, 18, who both live at home, before putting themselves forward.

"Adrienne wanted to remain the oldest and only girl and Forden wanted to have a brother and stay the youngest so that's what happened," said Jackie. "Now it feels like we're one big family. Our children accept David and Jamie as their brothers."

If you want to foster..

To foster you'll need a spare bedroom, be available to care for a child full-time, have experience of living/ working with children and be at least 21. You'll be paid an allowance to cover costs including food, clothing, travel and bills and a "fee" dependent on experience and the nature of the care provided. The Barnardo's charity has more than 100 years' experience in finding families for children.

CAPTION(S):

YOUNG: Amy and Tammy GROWN-UP: The girls now FOSTERED: David AUTISTIC: Jamie FAMILY: The Parkers FAMILY: Stella, aged five, had a troubled childhood, and below, with her son Edward, now aged six, and great aunt, Stella Brockman INSPIRED: Stella has managed to turn her life around and works as an entrepeneur
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:May 14, 2012
Words:1564
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