Maria’s Case Study

When asked what’s the best thing she’s gotten out of working with Turtle Dove, Maria* doesn’t hesitate before answering: “Confidence” she says, with the kind of self-assuredness that makes you realise it’s true.  “I’ve met loads of different people at the events.  Before, I never would have dared talk to them, but now I talk to people all the time.”  However, Maria hasn’t always found dealing with new situations and a professional environment this easy.

Maria’s Story:

Maria was born in Kosice-Saca, Slovakia.  It wasn’t until her mother fell pregnant that she discovered Maria’s biological father already had a wife and four children. He spent much of her childhood in and out of prison.  Characterised by extreme poverty and urban deprivation, Kosice-Saca was, and still is, a village of families “living on nothing”.  Maria considered herself lucky residing in one of the concrete tower blocks, which at least had running water, a toilet and electricity.  Her ten cousins were crammed into a one-room, tin shed with her Aunt and Uncle and had to walk miles to wash or collect water from a pump.  “People would sleep anywhere – on the ground or on the floor, anywhere they could.”  With so many children running around in such a small space, it was a dangerous place – her cousin will bear lifelong scars after accidently tipping a pan of boiling water onto himself as a child.

Battling the racism faced by many Roma Gypsies, Maria’s Mum and Stepdad (the man Maria calls her ‘real Dad’) found that there was no work for them in Slovakia: “you can apply for all the jobs you like, but you can’t hide how dark your skin is, so it never works out”.  When she was seven years old Maria was sent to live with her Grandparents whilst the rest of her family travelled to the UK in search of opportunity.  Maria missed her sisters, but adored both of her Grandparents and felt well provided for.  Then on her tenth birthday, Maria’s mother came to collect her.  They spent 36 hours travelling on a coach to be reunited with the rest of her family in the UK.

‘I felt like everyone was looking at me”

Maria initially enjoyed living in Cambridge.  Her Dad was working for a popular member of the traveller community and it felt like she arrived to a ready-made group of friends.  But as soon as she started school, everything changed.  Enrolling at a new primary school, in an alien country would be daunting for any child, but Maria didn’t speak a word of English.  Being unable to communicate with anyone was incredibly isolating and decimated her confidence: “I felt like everyone was looking at me, everyone was thinking: she’s so dumb”.  When some of the other pupils, mostly boys, began victimising her, Maria told her Mum and was kept home for a few weeks.  She returned to school, but the bullying continued.  One incident led Maria to kick one of the boys in retaliation, but a teacher saw and because she didn’t have the language to explain what was happening, she got punished.

‘I couldn’t put my hand up in class’

By the time she reached secondary school Maria’s sense of self-worth was so low that she didn’t speak to anyone at all “I couldn’t put my hand up in class; there were people who thought I genuinely couldn’t talk.” In year 8, she fell into a bad crowd because it gave her some confidence, albeit in a negative way.  Her attendance had plummeted to one day a week on average.  However, it was around this time that Maria realised school wasn’t about the other people in her classes, but about getting the grades she needed to make something of her life.

The Path to Turtle Dove

Felicity* had been Maria’s Young Peoples’ Worker (YPW) for two years when she suggested attending a Turtle Dove event.  Terrified to begin with, Maria refused to go on her own.  Her first event was a baptism of fire, whilst helping to set up the Reclaim the Night march organised by the London Feminists Network, Maria was asked to confiscate some banners that were contravening health and safety regulations.  Telling a group of militant feminists all pumped up for a demonstration, that they needed to surrender their home-made banners didn’t go down well – but Maria’s confidence grew noticeably after she’d successfully resolved the conflict.

The next event Maria attended solo, and again she rose to an unexpected challenge.  It was a local wedding, with a lot of pressure and the day turned out to be much harder work than anyone had anticipated.  When the other girls were apprehensive about serving high tea to the wedding guests in case they burned them, Maria grabbed a tea pot and got on with it.  Other events Maria’s worked at include a 50th birthday and a business conference at Anglia Ruskin University.  With each different event her confidence and self-belief swells: “The more I do, the more I learn.  If I make a mistake at one event, I’ll never make it again and every new experience makes me think: that’s something else I can handle. You can’t get bored working at Turtle Dove because every event is different”

Kate Nation, the co-founder of Turtle Dove, says that this mirrors her own experience in starting the company, “yes I’d worked for charities before, but running my own business was completely different. I didn’t know how to design a website, or create company accounts. Like the girls we’re working with, I had to say to myself: I’ve never done this before, but it needs to get sorted, so I’d better learn how to do it.”

Maria credits Kate’s relaxed and friendly attitude as a huge part of the reason Turtle Dove is so successful, “she’s normal, funny and lifts everyone up.  Someone else might come in with a snooty attitude and a big head, but Kate’s amazing, she’s our friend and our boss.”

‘These are highly capable and employable young women’

Turtle Dove is crucial because it offers something unique – a role that bridges the gap between youth support and work experience.  Too often young women are thrown into a work environment before they’re ready, and that negative experience materially damages their self-esteem, disadvantaging them in the long run.  Turtle Dove replicates a work environment without the pressure, which allows young women who’ve not thrived under conventional education systems to find their feet and blossom, giving them the confidence to forge their own careers.  Kate was bowled over by how quickly Maria got stuck in, especially given how shy she was the first time they met, “she works noticeably hard, at one of her first events, the organiser offered to write her a professional reference and felt disappointed that he didn’t have a job to give her himself.  That’s what we want to profile here: the quality of the work.  Turtle Dove isn’t just about giving Maria and the others confidence and social skills, these are highly capable and employable young women – they want jobs!”

Maria’s Future…

When asked where she sees herself in five years, Maria thinks, before answering, “Working as head of Turtle Dove”.  Kate bursts out laughing (and maybe shifts a little nervously…).  Whether or not she successfully usurps Kate, Maria definitely wants to continue working with the enterprise, it’s helped her realise what her dream job would be, “Something that combines working with people, waitressing and owning my own business.  I’m also passionate about the traveller community and I’d love to help them be viewed differently.  But I don’t have to rush.  I know now that I can get my GCSEs.  It’s never too late to learn. It’s never too late to get what you want.”

Maria is now attending and enjoying college whilst currently looking for part-time work.  If you need or know of anyone looking for employees in a relevant role, please do get in touch with Kate via kate@turtledovecambridge.com.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.