Taking on a foster child might not be what she was planning in her 70s, but when Stella English’s great aunt – also called Stella - was asked to take on the 10-year-old, she didn’t hesitate.
As part of a campaign to encourage families to consider fostering a child, Stella spoke to Yahoo! Lifestyle about how strict Stella Snr, who passed away earlier this year, turned her from a ragged tear away to a poised business woman and prepared her for anything Alan Sugar could throw at her.
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“The authorities decided my mum couldn’t look after me,” Stella explained. “I could have gone to a care home or who knows, but they called my great aunt Stella, who was 72 at the time, and she didn’t hesitate. They told her she had to come and get me within however many hours and she just turned up the next morning and said, ‘Pack your bags, you’re coming with me’.”
At the time Stella had a “really terrible” relationship with her mum. She didn’t go to school, had no idea about basic socialising and lived shambolically in Thamesmead. Septuagenarian Stella had her work cut out, moving her charge to rural Berkshire and getting her ready to attend school properly for the first time.
“It was a very miserable, difficult childhood and I really felt quite worthless at the time,” Stella said.
“What Stella [senior] did changed everything and changed my life forever. Later she always said, ‘What did I do? I don’t understand what I did for you that was so great.’ But she was a mother to me, and loved me and allowed me to be a child.
“I turned up and had never eaten vegetables before. I didn’t know when you were supposed to eat, or when to change my clothes. Stella fought really hard to get me into an excellent school when I didn’t pass my 11+ and made a big massive fuss that I should be given special treatment. Thank God she did because I had so little education before then. I almost never went to school. She was very strict and taught me everything most people take for granted.”
It was her great aunt’s strict approach that stood her in good stead, not only to win the Apprentice, but also to quit when the job wasn’t as described. She’s now suing Sir Alan Sugar for constructive dismissal, claiming the show took her out of the banking sector for too long and that the prize job was far below her capabilities. But despite this and her reputation as an ‘ice queen’ on the show, the other side of Stella’s personality comes across when she remembers her great aunt – warm and incredibly grateful.
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“Right from the off she made me work. When I first got to her house she offered me a cup of tea. I said I took two sugars. ‘Not any more you don’t!’ was her reply, and that was final!
“I used to think she wasn’t being generous but really she was teaching me life skills. One of my first jobs was with my next door neighbour - I made 150 quid washing cars. That got me started. My mum would never have been that enterprising. I would never have learnt how to do it without Stella.”
Her great aunt is also the driving force behind Stella’s ambition.
“If she had been born a little later she would have gone on to do some truly amazing things. And she really inspired me to aim higher and higher. One job I did was being a PA at a really big bank. It was a great job but Stella always insisted I could do better. ‘You don’t want to be someone else’s assistant,’ she said, though not in a nasty way.
“Sir Alan’s always going on about coming from nowhere, but what Stella managed was far more inspirational. She brought up three children before me, lost her husband in her 40s and carried on her cleaning job when I arrived to support me. She really gave up so much.”
Due to her positive experience, Stella’s keen to foster and encourages families to consider it too.
“My children are very young at the moment, five and three, so it’s something I want to do in the future when they’re older.
“You do need a lot of patience and it would be wrong of me to say it’s an easy thing to do. I wasn’t a normal child, I did a lot of unusual things that my auntie didn’t understand, and I couldn’t explain to her, because of my weird upbringing.
“But if you could rescue a child from the sort of awful situation I was in, you’ll get years of happiness out of them. They become part of your family and it’s an incredible gift to give someone. I am so keen for people to get in touch with Barnardo’s and talk to them about whether they’re right to foster a child. Don’t just stop at thinking about it – take the next step.”
This Foster Care Fortnight Barnardo’s is urging more people to consider putting themselves forward as potential foster carers - particularly for siblings or disabled children. To find out more, contact Barnardo’s on 08000 277 280 or barnardos.org.uk/fosteringandadoption. You never know, you might end up encouraging a future Apprentice winner.