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Real Life: How Turtle Dove helps young women fly

For the past five years Kate Nation has helped improve the futures of countless young women through her inspiring Cambridge-based social enterprise Turtle Dove. She talks to Louise Cummings about her life-saving work

It may be 100 years since the suffragette movement triumphed but sadly many young women are still missing out on education or employment. Research suggests there’s around twice as many young women not currently searching for jobs compared to their male peers, owing to a range of factors from lack of confidence and early pregnancy, to bullying and domestic violence. Thankfully in Cambridge, a safe female-only haven has been created, offering young women the opportunity to flourish, away from the pressure of their male contemporaries.

Established by Kate Nation in 2015, Turtle Dove empowers women, aged 14 to 23, by giving them the chance to gain work experience in hospitality – assisting in small-scale local events, from corporate functions and birthday celebrations to weddings – as well as running intergenerational afternoon teas.

Kate, 36, who is based at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Arbury, and inspired by a strong Christian faith, explains her motivation: “You don’t have to look far to realise that young women are the most vulnerable in regards to being exploited and have the least access to education. The world is systemically sexist and often young women are at the bottom of the pile.”

In an age where it’s common for young women to have a script of ‘I can’t do this, I can’t achieve this’, the Turtle Dove team are seeking to change the narrative to ‘I can’.

Kate, who grew up in Cambridge, has been involved in local and international child and youth work for almost 20 years. She’s worked locally at Ridgefield and St Philip’s CE Primary in Cambridge, for the City Council children’s and young people participation programme and headed up a young women’s programme at Romsey Mill. Internationally, she’s studied youth work in Australia, worked with orphans in Uganda, and completed a ‘children at risk’ course with an international Christian organisation in Brazil.

Recalling the latter, she explains: “That was a three month course, covering things like fostering and adoption, trauma and abuse. So we got to do practical work, helping with housing for young mums that had been living on the streets with their kids, and working with children that had been abandoned due to HIV and Aids. It was quite an intense introduction.”

Kate credits this amazing project with opening her eyes to the issues that young women face – and the support they so desperately need to progress positively through life.

This, coupled with her work with young women at Romsey Mill as part of the social inclusion youth team, saw the idea for Turtle Dove begin to take shape.

“Seventy per cent of the women we worked with said confidence was their biggest need, because they felt if they had confidence, they could address the other issues in their lives, from homelessness to unemployment or abusive relationships,” Kate explains.

With the help of advisors from Cambridge Judge Business School, Kate devised a business plan, and came up with the confidence-bolstering model for Turtle Dove, which has so far helped more than 84 young women, working alongside 30 volunteers at more than 200 events.

The distinctive enterprise name arose as Kate and her colleagues sought to reinvent the sometimes derogatory collective term of women as ‘birds’. “We thought we’d reclaim the notion of birds and liked Turtle Dove, as these biblical birds are by nature very shy and retiring and actually a lot of the young women we work with have issues around anxiety and social interaction so that fits well,” she explains. “Turtle Doves also have a really strong pairing and that’s the kind of culture we want to create; the strength of relationships of the youth workers and young women within the team.”

Of the women Turtle Dove help, many have suffered mental health issues, anxiety or depression, some have low educational attainment or have experienced peer on peer sexual violence. What they gain is a secure environment to learn how to reengage with society, build confidence and gain something positive to add to their CV.

The women receive supported work experience, so never get thrown in at the deep end – (Tracey Self, an Emotional Support Worker is an invaluable member of the team, in this respect) - and earn time credits for their efforts, which can be redeemed at the cinema or Better leisure centres.

Many particularly enjoy hosting the afternoon teas for older people, appreciating the feeling of giving back to the community. “That interaction between the young women and elderly is invaluable,” Kate enthuses. “We did a couple of Christmas afternoon teas for Contact The Elderly and I remember one lady would say ‘Where’s that girl from Cherry Hinton?’ as she’d remembered one of our young women who’d served her table from the previous year. She’d made such an impact on her, which was lovely.”

For Kate, the experience has been incredibly rewarding in terms of the transformations she’s witnessed. “We’ve seen some great changes, to the extent that some women will come to us shy, very quiet, with no eye contact and will end up taking charge, showing leadership potential, being forthright and getting jobs, which is just amazing,” she explains. “Others may have been referred from mental health services at a very fragile time of life – and remarkably they turn up to every event, are diligent and consistent, which is a huge achievement. One lady, who really suffered with, ended up getting a job working at Addenbrooke’s Hospital on a Covid ward, which is testament to how far she has come.”

Many Turtle Dove ‘graduates’ go on to gain employment or take on college courses, and almost all benefit from life experiences, such as learning how to interact with people with dementia or disabilities.

Since Covid struck, the team has sadly lost thousands of pounds in cancelled events bookings, so need public support more than ever. So how can we help?

Customers can book the team to cater for events, where they will serve teas, coffees and cakes, using their beautiful vintage china crockery. There’s also a Turtle Dove van available for hire, a membership supporters scheme – and Kate is on the lookout for two more directors to join their board of five (ideally with skillsets in HR, legal services, branding and marketing).

Looking ahead, Turtle Dove – which celebrated its fifth birthday in the summer – is hoping to launch an alternative education provision, which would allow girls from schools to access emotional support and gain work experience. Aside from that, Kate hopes that her events diary will soon be bursting with bookings, allowing Turtle Dove to take flight once more, guiding more young women onto a more fruitful path.

“When I see the outcomes and change in the young women we see here, it’s jaw dropping,” enthuses Kate. “It floors me sometimes. I just think I can’t not carry this on; for these women it’s a lifeline.”

Find out more about booking the team at turtledovecambridge.com ; make a donation at gofundme.com/f/turtledovecovid19support and if you’re interested in joining the board email hello@turtledovecambridge.com

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