A young art graduate who was inspired to become a support worker after being struck down with Covid in lockdown is celebrating a place in the final of the care industry Oscars.

Francesca Wilcox, the daughter of Bath artist and printmaker Rachel Wilcox, joined Integra Community Living Options, part of National Care Group, in 2021 to support people with complex mental health needs.

The 26-year-old fine art graduate said she has found her true vocation and could not have chosen a more rewarding career.

The former Cardiff Metropolitan University student, who grew up in Bath and now lives in Roath, Cardiff, is the toast of the social care industry after being shortlisted for the Exceptional Newcomer award, sponsored by Barchester Healthcare, in the Wales Care Awards 2022.

The contest is hosted annually by social care champion Care Forum Wales which supports more than 450 care homes, nursing homes and other independent health and social care providers across Wales.

Francesca will attend a glittering ceremony at City Hall in Cardiff on Friday 21 October, hosted by popular tenor, Wynne Evans, best known as Gio Compario from the Go Compare TV ads.

Francesca was overwhelmed on the news of her being shortlisted. She said; “I was really quite amazed, partly because I’ve not been in my role for long and partly because I’m so new to the sector”

“I came in with a fresh pair of eyes and it feels really special to have been nominated. I don’t think I’m any different, I just get on with the job, and to be recognised for that is just amazing.”

Francesa, who was awarded Student of the Year in her final year of study at university, worked in retail roles and accountancy before deciding to follow her original plan to work in health and social care after recovering from Covid just before the first lockdown.

She applied for a role at Integra’s Ty Newydd residential service as a support and rehabilitation practitioner and now supports five women in a range of ways from helping them with college or social activities through to encouraging their involvement in fundraising.

The keen paddle boarder also enjoys sharing her artistic skills with the people she supports, including bunting making, tie-dying and clay-making sessions.

Since joining Integra, Francesca has excelled, gaining a variety of social care qualifications including her All Wales Induction Framework for Health and Social Care (AWIF) and QCF Level 2 Health and Social Care certificate.

“Every day is different,” she said.

“I’ve always been interested in science, medicine, biology and forensics. After the first lockdown, I was speaking to my partner’s mother who’s a nurse and she said what about going into health and social care. She said you’ll either sink or swim and by the looks of it, I’m swimming!

“I’ve learnt a lot about myself and how to interact with people. It has been very eye-opening.

“The people we support for don’t necessarily have the coping mechanisms or support structures we have been lucky enough to have. These people need support workers.

“You have very challenging days, but also very rewarding ones. I feel lucky to say I love my job. Not everyone has the privilege to say that.

“The rewards are not always about the big changes. Things change all the time and I’ve seen people go from very high highs to very low lows in a couple of days. You take your measure of rewards day by day, each little success is a great step forward.

“It’s always great to do arts and crafts, it’s healing for the soul. My mum, who is an artist and printmaker in Bath, has given me plenty of ideas using art as therapy. It’s great to be combining two of my skills in one job.”

One of Francesca’s other passions – aside from social care – is Wales.

The support worker has fallen in love with her adopted home – so much so she’s now learning the language.

“I absolutely love it! Wales is very much my home now, but Bath is just over the bridge,” she said.

Francesca was put forward for the award by Leika Jamal, registered manager at Ty Newydd Residential Home, Maes Hafan Supported Living Service and Integra Domiciliary Support Services.

She said: “I’m really impressed with Francesca. She has always been proactive in completing her courses, despite never working in this sector before.

“She’s a natural with the people we support. She understands the bigger picture and their journey and has just picked things up very quickly. She’s not afraid to ask questions because she wants to learn and improve.

“She’s also really creative and flexible and a good team player. She’s a nice person to have around on shift, and always has a positive energy. She’s made a big impact and deserves this award.”

Mario Kreft MBE, Chair of Care Forum Wales, said the aim of the Wales Care Awards was to recognise the unstinting and remarkable dedication of unsung heroes and heroines across Wales.

He said “The social care sector is full of wonderful people because it’s not just a job, it’s a vocation – these are people who go the extra mile for others.

“During the Covid crisis, this fantastic workforce rose magnificently to the challenge, putting their own lives on the line to do everything they possibly could to safeguard the people for whom they provide care.

“Unfortunately, it has taken a global pandemic for many other people to realise how important and how significant our social care workforce is.

“Their incredible contribution was summed up best in the powerful and emotive words of the song, Heroes of our Heart, written by the acclaimed poet Mererid Hopwood and sung by Sir Bryn Terfel, which was set to the famous tune of Men of Harlech. The message that the diolch should last forever is one that we should never forget.”