This week, Friday Focus spent time with the Browne Family from Bradley Park in Shantallow.  Heartbreakingly all 5 children found themselves orphaned, when they tragically lost both parents within six months of each other. ‘Without a second thought’ eldest child Nicole says instinctively she knew that she wanted to keep her family unit together, and began the journey to full legal guardianship at the tender age of 21.  Her siblings Garreth, Daniel and Matthew as well as sister Laura ranged from age eight to seventeen at the time, with Laura sitting her A-Levels three weeks after her mother’s death, incredibly passing them all.  

While in remission, Nicole’s mother found herself battling cancer once again and sadly died the day after her release from hospital following treatment. This sudden tragedy made Nicole determined to give her family ‘stability and normality’ after the unexpected death turned their world upside down.  With maturity beyond her 21 years Nicole sought legal advice, instructing a solicitor to apply for an interim Care-Plan for her sister and 3 brothers, the latter who all have learning difficulties.  The legal journey to obtain full legal guardianship meant that Nicole was required to attend Family Courts in Belfast, and demonstrate to a room full of professionals that she was fit to support her family despite her youth and the considerable needs of her brothers.  Nicole’s argument was so compelling that the legal team took just ten minutes to deliberate before awarding legal guardianship status to the eldest, marking the beginning of Nicole’s role change from sibling to parent. 

With Laura now attending University in Manchester, Nicole looks after three teenage boys and a toddler of her own, three year old Lucas.  Her day begins at 7am, a flurry of school uniform, breakfasts and homework checks.  With both sixteen year old Gareth and fifteen year old Matthew currently undertaking their exam equivalents in Ardnashee school, it’s a busy time in the household!  On how she manages the needs of the family, Nicole advises any young carers or guardians to always make sure and protect their ‘me time’. ‘Long term, try and have a structured support plan from the various groups which are available, don’t be afraid to ask for help.  In an average day though, even if you don’t schedule it for a particular time, always make sure you have time for yourself built into the day because that’s what makes you a better, rested version of yourself for your family.   Lean on extended family, friends and go get your hair done or get a cuppa, wee simple things.  Everyone plays their part because you cant do it all, my fiancé,  he even taught the boys to shave. We have a great relationship, we are best friends and he has been an unbelievable support in this situation’’.

Although she is extremely humble on the particular impact her guardianship has had on her family, the successes are evident in the stream of recognitions her siblings have received.  Both Matthew and Daniel have received high profile awards from the Derry Credit Union.  Garreth most recently has received the Diana Legancy award from none other than Princes William and Harry, held in St.James’ Palace. The award nomination, from Kinship Care highlighted Garreth's selfless ability to put aside his own emotions and talk to other children about his own experiences and be a mentor to those who are currently being looked after.  The cheeky chappie greeted the Royal pair with ‘what’s the criac’ and was caught on camera winking his eye at the princes while receiving his award, a story he regales with great humour. ‘Harry actually brought it up at dinner that evening, and said it was the first time it ever happened. He was laughing so I think he enjoyed how different it was from the normal things he does and all the other awards parties’.  

With their ‘new normal’ well settled in, the Brownes make sure to remember the parents they have lost. ‘On New Year’s Eve we always let off lanterns, and on my mammy’s fiftieth birthday we let off fifty pink balloons at her grave. There was a great crowd, it was really special. I think even a few strangers took part accidently!  And on confirmations and birthdays we make a big deal for the boys because we know there are people missing.  Overall though, I have tried to find my own way to do this rather than follow my mammy’s.  After all you cant step into shoes bigger than yours’.  

We chatted to Nicole and the boys on what makes them work so well, advice for other families like theirs and meeting royalty.

How would you describe your family?  Caring firstly, open, enthusiastic, inspirational – with a touch of madness!

What makes you laugh, what do the Brownes find funny?  Ourselves! Everyday is a laugh in our house because we are all so close, we’re best friends.  It also goes the other way too but, we can crack each other up because we know how to push each other’s buttons.

What is the best compliment you have ever received?  The strength of our family has been mentioned loads, and it’s always our favourite thing to hear. 

A question for the boys, tell me your favourite things about Nicole? Nicole is really caring, we can always tell how much she cares about us because of what she does for us.  She is really inspiring too and she is always fair with us. 

Nicole, what are the ‘best bits’ of raising the boys?  The best bit is that the boys are so so close, but they are all so different. We are all really close and in particular the boys are so close knit together.  We really are best friends, and they are mad about Lucas my son.  They are such a great help with him and Lucas just loves a carryon with his uncles.

What have been the high points for your family?   Our awards.  They mean so much because of how hard things were and we came through it.

What has been your low point? Losing our parents so close together. 

What are your favourite things? Our gadgets, iPads, phones. Our dog is special too but because hes only got 3 legs!

How do you like to relax? We always have family time, Bowling, Movies nights.  We love a horror or action film but Nicole is always sleeping in 10 minutes!  

Finally – What advice do you have for any children who are looked after by someone other than their parents? Make an effort to get to know your guardian, because when you talk to them you will bond with them and then it becomes easier. We respect Nicole too, she is fair with us and good to us and we try not to make it hard for her…most of the time!