Established in 1992 by two Devon teachers and operated from a caravan in the early years, CHICKS has grown into an inspirational nationally focussed charity which provides free respite experiences for disadvantaged children from all over the UK.
CHICKS began as an acronym for ‘Camping Holidays for Inner City Kids’ but later changed to simply ‘CHICKS’ in recognition of the broader range of backgrounds and environments of the children who benefit from the charity’s work.
The respite breaks consist of five day breaks packed with activities and fun and take place at one of CHICKS’ three retreats in Devon (Brentor), Cornwall (Tywardreath) and Derbyshire (Fenny Bentley). Between 1992 and 2017, they provided 15,552 breaks and there are around 800 places available each year.
There is a core of activities that will be undertaken on most respite breaks but the team will review the information about how each group is made up and look at which activities would be most appropriate. If something comes up during the week that they can fit in, they will adapt accordingly.
Chief Operating Officer, Sarah Smith said:
“Disadvantage comes in a variety of guises. It may be due to poverty, abuse, bullying, marital breakdowns, housing issues, domestic violence or bereavement. Some children may be in care or they could be carers themselves. The number one criteria is that they qualify under one of these categories and that they don’t have another holiday that year.
“Our aim is to give them the chance to be children and to provide those memories that we all look back on and that most of us take for granted. For many it’s their first trip away from home and some will inevitably change their minds.”
Sarah explained that the children are all referred by professionals – schools, social workers, young carers groups and medical professionals and these will liaise between CHICKS and the parents. The breaks are completely free except for the cost of travel to the retreats or pre-arranged pick-up points.
One of the principle challenges faced by the charity is connecting with professional referrers and ensuring as many of them as possible are aware of its service, aims and objectives so that they can reach the children with the most need.
“Referral agents have become under increasing pressure with cut backs, reduced staffing levels and less time,” said Sarah. “We must work harder and harder to maintain those links and demonstrate the worthwhileness of our service.”
The feedback from referrers is overwhelmingly positive with 92% recognising an increase in the children’s self-esteem, 96% believing the breaks have a positive impact on the children’s lives and 98% agreeing that children’s confidence improves.
Fund-raising is also a major priority. They rely 100% on fund-raising income with an annual requirement of £1.7 million without any government funding.
Operating holidays for children is also labour intensive. The charity employs 40 staff over its three sites. Every respite break needs four core members of staff plus ancillary staff – cook, cleaners and maintenance to provide a respite experience that is fun, safe and secure. In addition to the senior management team, there is a coordination team who look at the needs of individual children and attempt to create groups that are likely to be best suited to spend time together, getting the right balance and right mix. There are also two partnership managers who deal with corporate supporters with some high profile national businesses amongst their numbers.
Katherine Kelly is Campaigns and Communications Manager for CHICKS.
“We also have members of staff who support community fund-raising and we have recently appointed someone to manage our own events such as a fund-raising ball being arranged in London.
“Our aim is to diversify our income, particularly partnering with our corporate supporters, both in terms of volunteering on respite weeks and making use of our facilities. The retreats are not always in use so we have started to hire them out and provide team-building opportunities. We can also provide our facilities for meeting rooms and we can cater for them providing an alternative and value-for-money venue for business meetings.”
PKF Francis Clark’s not-for-profit sector specialist Louise Bridgett began advising CHICKS in the Autumn of 2017 when they decided they wanted more in-depth knowledge and experience of the sector as their needs continue to change. She said:
“As well as being appointed as auditors for the charity and its trading subsidiary, we provide accounting, VAT and tax advice. We have quickly built up an excellent working relationship with the CHICKS team and look forward to supporting them with their exciting new ventures.”
Sarah Smith added:
“Louise has been very good at talking things through with us and bouncing off new ideas, giving us guidance and direction and bringing in other people as needed. She has also helped us with compliance matters. We attended the firm’s annual charity conference which was very informative and Louise will always let us know if something comes up that may be of interest to us.
Speaking of the future, Sarah and her team are aiming to increase income and the number of referrers and children they are reaching.
“The long term aim is to have a number of additional retreats but for now it’s about making what we do sustainable and the best it can be. We are looking at further tailoring the breaks to the actual needs of children because their needs are changing all the time and we have to adapt.”