BY the time she ran away from her last foster care home aged 16, Sophie Hannington had had at least ten different addresses.

She and her sister had been in and out of care since she was three, as well as living in a variety of temporary homes with their mother, such as hostels.

But now Southampton's Mother Christmas is putting her difficult past aside to help others.

The 25-year-old sums up her childhood with one word: "horrendous."

"I've suffered post-traumatic stress disorder," she adds.

"I blanked everything out before I was 12, which is probably for the best, as I think it was pretty traumatic.

"I know I really started to struggle when I was about 14. I just felt worthless and wondered why my parents didn't love me."

After she ran away, Sophie lived with a boyfriend, and when that relationship broke down, she found herself homeless.

From the ages of 18 to 21, she slept in her car, in bedsits, in hostels or on people's sofas.

"I was fortunate in that I'd passed my driving test when I was 17 and had my car, so I was never sleeping on the streets," she says.

But despite living in such hardship, Sophie was determined to better herself, and put herself through college, retaking some of her GCSEs and training as a hairdresser, before holding down an apprenticeship.

"I have always worked very hard," she says.

"I was earning £95 a week as an apprentice but was working full-time hours, so I couldn't get any support for housing or benefits. I was put on a housing waiting list but that had a five year wait. I was offered supported housing, but the rent was £400 a month and that was far more than I could afford."

At the age of around 21, Sophie attempted to take her own life and was taken to hospital.

It was, of course, a very low point, but also marked a change in her life, where she began to get some of the help that she so desperately needed.

"I was just desperate for help," she says.

"I remember I was always going to the doctor with random pains. I felt so lost. I know now that I was asking for help, but I didn't know what help I needed. It's very hard to comprehend that no one loves you.

"Christmas was always a really awful time for me. You feel more down and distant from everyone else. Then, on Christmas Day, some of the people I had spent the day with stole my car and crashed it.

"I was also getting bullied and I just got fed up of trying and tried to kill myself."

After she came out of hospital a tutor at Totton College, where she was studying, asked her if she was OK, and Sophie opened up to her.

"She was the first person to say to me 'what you're doing is really good'," says Sophie.

Sophie's tutor helped her get her GCSEs and her first bookkeeping qualification and also put her up for a student award.

At around the same time, she was invited to the University of Winchester, which holds a spring school for young people leaving care. It was the first time that Sophie had really mixed with other care leavers, and realised that other people felt the same as her.

She went on to secure an apprenticeship at Hampshire County Council, where she still works today, and has been promoted to the role of technical administrative supervisor, and is currently training to be an accountant.

She began volunteering with care leavers and also became a care ambassador for care leavers, speaking publicly about her experiences.

"Care leavers are pretty much left to fend for themselves. I didn't know how to help myself. That's why I speak up now."

Sophie is now in a much happier place than she was four years ago.

She is renting a flat, has a partner and has been in the same job for four years, making her colleagues the most stable and consistent relationships that she's experienced.

"I've never had security and stability before. I've had more than 20 addresses since I was three. My work relationships are the longest I've had. It's amazing coming in and seeing the same people every day, and I've really blossomed.

"I'm very proud of my life now. I've won a few awards here and I've helped pave the way for other care leavers – we often have a bad reputation as a group."

Supporting other care leavers is a passion of Sophie's, and it has led to her organising a huge collection of Christmas presents for young people leaving care.

It started when she saw an advert saying that the care leaving teams were looking for presents for young people.

"I sent a note to my colleagues to ask them to donate presents and told everyone for the first time that I was a care leaver. I felt that I wanted to say it. My manager asked me if I would share it with the rest of our colleagues, and it got sent out to 700 people.

"So many people donated presents after that."

Thanks to her efforts over the years, this year Sophie was asked to coordinate the present collection for four care leaving teams in the area, as well as the YMCA in Southampton, which houses homeless young people and also has further contacts in the community.

She has managed to collect an impressive haul of around 2,000 gifts.

"I want them to get a present," she says.

"I remember sometimes getting vouchers and I'd spend them on food in a supermarket.

"I hope they see how many people have donated presents and realise that there is amazing support in the community.

"It makes you feel less along in the world, and a lot of us do feel alone."

Christmas is always a difficult time for Sophie, but focusing on helping so many others makes it easier for her.

"You do go through a lot of emotions at Christmas. Organising the present collection is a way of making it into a positive for me," she says.

"I do tend to feel sad at this time of year, but this stops me from thinking too much about myself and being self-pitying."

Sophie already does so much to help care leavers, but she hopes to do even more.

She is keen to help find and set up a central hub in the area, where care leavers can go to learn basic skills and meet each other.

"I didn't know how to cook, clean or how to manage my money and not get into debt.

"You're treated as an adult when you leave care but in many ways, care leavers can be more vulnerable than young people who have grown up in a stable family, and there are huge gaps in the system.

"A central hub would be so valuable and I know there is so much support in the community from all the Christmas presents that have been donated, so I really hope it's something we can make happen."

*Sophie has finished her present collection for this year, but anyone wishing to donate Christmas gifts to care leavers and other vulnerable young people can take donations to YMCA Southampton, George Williams House, 8 Cranbury Place, Southampton, SO14 0AG, or can make a cash donation to the YMCA via