I’m passionate about better outcomes for children and young people. In fact, I’m passionate about better outcomes for humans in general. The frustration for me comes when we, on a societal level, think that we are going to improve these outcomes in the long term, without considering the whole person and their experiences.
A young person with mental health issues and deep-rooted trauma is not going to miraculously be ready for the jobs market after a 6-week employability course. You can buy them all the kit, get them a shiny new pair of shoes and take them to the interview, but I’d bet my last quid that it won’t stick. The problem isn’t ‘time keeping skills’ or a lack of bus fare, it’s their view of themselves, relationships and the world around them.
Why on earth would you give a s@*t about attending college, when you don’t know where you’re going to sleep that night? Why would you care about success if no one, not even yourself, is cheering you on? We need to ask ‘what happened to you?’ not ‘how can we fix you?’. We can’t expect our young people to be fulfilled, functioning members of society when they are lost, scared and without any stability in their lives. We need to offer that stability and safety and show them that if they push back, we’ll still be there fighting their corner. Listening to what happened and giving them space to find solutions to overcome obstacles.
Good youth work and any successful service for children and young people, is rooted in human connection. We can’t expect to gain respect or have any impact on behaviour if we don’t take the time to listen to the story. Find out about their day. Learn about their family. Remember their birthday and maybe even get a cake and sing loudly and embarrassingly at them while they pretend they hate it. This will take time and commitment, but the payoff will be delivered in spades.
Desmond Tutu said;
‘There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in’.
I couldn’t agree more.
Corner House Youth Project
It was the 15th March 1999 when I first arrived at the Corner House Resource Centre - I arrived at 98 Dovecot Street to begin my placement as a Student studying Youth & Community Work at Durham. At that time the project offered services from cradle to grave including Lunch Groups, Breakfast Clubs for the Homeless, Creche Facilities, Job Clubs, Creative Art Clubs and of course Youth Work.
Once my placement had finished, I returned to University….. months later an opportunity arose for a Sessional Youth Worker and so this is where this journey really begins.
In January 2000 the Organisation changed its focus to delivering Youth Work, only as the need became greater, and the mix of clients was potentially not a perfect alignment! In April 2000 the Corner House Youth Project was established under the Leadership of Lesley Makin, my predecessor.
As the Youth Work offer expanded, the Youth Work team also began to grow and we started to provide a holistic service to some of Stockton’s most vulnerable and challenging young people and I guess the rest is history.
Over the last 21 I have worked alongside an amazing Staff Team who never cease to amaze me in their passion for the work they do and the willingness to work in some very difficult situations. At this point I must remember those staff who are no longer with us, who also played such an important part in my journey with the Corner House, Nicki Gardner who worked on our Alternative Education Programme and became a really close friend, Jeanne Allison a Youth Worker specifically in Parkfield and Mill Lane, Trustees like Jan Beckwith and Bill Taylor who worked tirelessly as Trustees.
Now to the hundreds, and yes probably thousands of young people who have accessed the project over the last 21 years, some of which I will never forget. During my first few months at the Project I worked with the youngest Heroin addict in Stockton who, at 11, was in a horrendous place and also with the first young person who was given an ASBO in Stockton despite many years later receiving a diagnosis of Autism. I spent many evenings in Local Police Stations with these two as their responsible adult and became very close to them and their families trying to support and help them make sense of life which was at times, I’m sure like wading through treacle! There have been many young people who will always remain in my thoughts and sometimes spot them from afar and I think to myself … phew they made it and by that, I mean they are still alive which taking all things into consideration is remarkable. Sadly, we have lost a number of young people over the last 20 years too and attended far too many young people’s funerals always questioning ‘if only …. what if?’ which in turn just meant that we would carry on and work even harder to support these complex needs young people.
I have been doing a lot of looking back (as you can imagine) looking over the reports I have written, talking about the different characters we have had the pleasure of meeting and situations we have found ourselves in over the last 20 years. We have always tried to align our work to Local and National Policies and differing agendas of which there have been many from SRB - (Single Regeneration Budget, for those of you too young to remember) Neighbourhood Renewal Fund the arrival of Connexions and Integrated Service Areas, Every Child Matters, Youth Matters and Neighbourhood Management to name but a few! There have been times when this was a fine balancing act, ensuring we could deliver this to fit comfortably with the true meaning of Youth Work, as it has often felt like Youth Work was seen to be a vehicle to support the delivery of the Government Targets on Employment and Education, rather than meeting young people where they were and on their terms. We did and still continue to manage this melange to try and ensure we could deliver much needs services to young people in Stockton.
I have enjoyed immensely working in the VCS and with the Local Authority in Stockton and thank you to each and every one of you who have believed in the work we do and supported us to deliver the whole range of services to some of the most troubled Young People in Stockton.
And now… it’s time for me to hand the baton over and I feel so comfortable that Debbie Jones will take on this role with so much energy and passion while the ethos of the organisation remains true to its commitment to young people. The Management team is strong and the new Operations Manager, Lucy Bentley is now in post I have no doubt that the organisation will go from strength to strength. Debbie will be supported by the whole staff team of that I am sure and especially Karen Winner who has been my wing woman since I was appointed CEO all those years ago who I owe a special thanks to.
Thank you goes to the Trustees who have had the confidence in everything we do and for the support they have given me especially over the last 5 years.
I look forward hearing, albeit from afar, about the continued success of the Project and I wish you all well.
Youth work? What is it? What does it mean?
In all honesty I myself was naive to the meaning of ‘youth work’. I started volunteering as a youth worker a few years ago and at the time I worked with an amazing team who inspired me and gave me an insight into the true meaning of youth work. This is where I developed a passion for working with children and young people and wanted to help support them to make a difference.
But how do we as experienced practitioners provide that stability and support for a young person? Youth work is much more than whipping a pack of cards out or kicking a football around. There is a deeper sense of meaning and understanding to the profession than some may realise. It’s about having time for that young person and listening to them but not persuading them by our own thoughts and feelings. Learning to support them holistically by creating positive learning experiences and allowing them to create their own identity in our world, by giving them the voice and recognition they deserve. We somewhat try to embed ourselves in their lives so we can try to gain an insight into what life is like through their lens. This allows us to understand some of the inequalities and challenges they face and helps us to improve social mobility.
We are human, we make mistakes, we reflect, we learn, we grow, however working with the young people we do only makes our job much more rewarding and worthy. Yes, it may be utter chaos at times and no two days will be the same but one thing I think a lot of youth workers would agree with me on, is the difference we try to make to that young person and that amongst everything puts the biggest SMILE on our face!
Our voices can seem lost at times and sadly we do not always get the recognition we deserve. However, this year showed us a glimmer of hope and we were bursting with pride when the government recognised and awarded the youth sector ‘key worker’ status. Finally, they understand the positive impact youth workers have on young people’s lives and how vital they are in meeting their needs. This highlights the importance of our work and shows the passion and dedication each and every one of us provides.
Amongst all of these uncertain times we have had to deal with different ways of working. This means flexibly adapting our own ways of working and exploring areas which some of us may be new too. Me for one! I don’t know about you but it has certainly taught me a few things over the past few months and made me reflect!
So here is a big shout out to all you youth workers near and far. You are all awesome in helping raise young people’s aspirations but also adapting your own ways of working and the challenges this may have brought along the way. I think we will all agree we cannot wait to move forward with our services again and return to making more memories with our young people.
However, I think the biggest appreciation should go to all the young people we have worked with and the adversity they have faced through this global pandemic. Rest assured we as youth workers will be there every step of the way to help you return to the new normal ways of working and support you to continue to grow and flourish.
So as we now are approaching (hopefully) the last stage of this pandemic we hope to welcome you all back to our youth clubs as soon as it is safe to do so. For without you allowing us to do what we do our job would mean nothing!
Mental Health. Everyone has it and just like physical health, it is changeable. I’m sure some of you reading this may feel you’re sick of hearing about it. I’ve definitely heard it said more than a few times. I would hazard a guess to say if you are sick of hearing about it, you are in the very fortunate position to have never experienced the distress of poor mental health. This is fantastic for you, but it doesn’t negate the problem. This is a very real public health issue that is affecting our children, young people and wider society.
In 2019, there were 5,691 suicides registered in England and Wales. Around three-quarters of registered deaths in 2019 were among men (4,303 deaths), which follows a consistent trend back to the mid-1990s. Despite having a low number of deaths overall, rates among the under 25's have generally increased in recent years, particularly 10 to 24 year-old females where the rate has increased significantly since 2012 to its highest level with 3.1 deaths per 100,000 females in 2019. (ONS 2020)
I can only deduce that the current global situation with COVID-19 and the associated restrictions will have some sort of negative effect on these figures, or at least a detrimental effect on the mental health of young people as a whole. 2020 has undoubtedly been a tough one and while isolation has been difficult for most, it has been unbearable for some.
This year hasn’t been great, but the one thing it has made us do is stop to think. That has been hard for many children and adults included. Being with our thoughts and in our own company has forced us to consider many things that would have usually been pushed down by our busy lives. But maybe, this time to think can be used for good. Maybe things that have risen to the surface need to be discussed. Maybe this can avoid some tragedies.
But what do we do? How can we help? I’ve seen numerous social media campaigns in recent months relating to the importance of good mental health and that’s great, but it can’t stop there. It can feel like a daunting prospect talking about mental health if you’re not accustomed to it, but it needn’t be. What is really at the bones of it, is honest communication. You don’t need to worry about having the right words or saying the wrong thing. The fact that you are truly interested and present in the situation is often enough to make a difference.
I think what many of us underestimate is the power of our undivided attention. To be truly listened to is so overwhelmingly powerful. Think about the last time you felt like that. When you were listened to, understood. I’d hazard a guess that you remember it with fondness, that it made you feel good, valued. Listening without agenda or the need to reply with an opinion, is a wonderful thing. You don’t need to have the answers; you need to let someone find their own.
Unfortunately, in today’s world having or giving undivided attention can be hard to come by. We are busy, we are distracted and we are surrounded by stimulus vying for our attention. I say, let’s at least try. I’m not saying that’s easy, I struggle to do it. To put down the phone, to ignore the emails, but it’s so important. When we stop, we notice. We notice subtle changes in our children, our friends, our partners. Then we ask the question and listen. ‘How are you feeling?’ and if the answer is ‘fine’, we maybe ask again.
I wish you all the most wonderful Christmas and hope you get time to spend with the people you love the most.
(Operations Manager / Trainee Psychotherapist)
"GET A JOB!"
"CAN'T FEED YOUR KIDS BUT GOT A PHONE?!"
I hadn't planned to wade in on this matter or write our first blog about this particular subject. Far from it. But, in all good conscience, it can also not go unchallenged from those professionals who know more about it than most.
To be clear from the outset, this blog is not meant to sensationalise or create a huge debate. It is simply written from the point of view of a youth and community worker, based on real life observations, decades of experience and growing frustrations.
So here goes:
Child poverty IS increasing. Most certainly to the worst levels I have seen in 20 years of working in children and adult services. Child poverty, in 2020, in this borough (Stockton-on-Tees), looks like:
Parents who are stressed out, struggling and trying their best. Parents feeling pressure to provide. Parents worrying about how long they can have the heating on for and praying that their child will eat what they have made for dinner because it's all that they have. Parents who know the price of almost every item in Aldi and Lidl because they have to work out what they can afford before they get there so that they don’t suffer the burning embarrassment, of their card being declined at the till. Parents experiencing the gnawing guilt when their child asks if they can have a treat and they have to say no because they need to buy toilet roll instead.
And yes, the numbers of children affected are marginal in comparison to the overall number of children in the borough. And yes, children of previous generations have experiences of dreadful poverty too. No-one would ever dismiss that. And yes, 100% there are parents out there who are not doing enough. And yes, there are adults abusing the benefit system.
BUT, believe this - as community based workers, at the front line of youth services, knowing our families, as we do; 9 times out of 10, where real poverty exists, none of those features are contributory. Increasingly the issue is not just linked to families who are in receipt of benefits. There is a significant issue with the working poor,a problem that does not just exist as a result of COVID.
Please know this - that even where those unappealing contributory factors are the cause, the outcome is the same. Children are hungry and cold. Children are unable to reach their potential. Children have a lack of energy to focus and learn. Children have lowered aspirations. After all how can a child be creative and maintain drive when their most basic needs are not routinely met?
The issue of child poverty is complicated. Inequality has, and always will, exist.
But one thing is for sure, in the year 2020, living in one of the richest nations in the world, levels of child poverty should not be increasing.
Whilst this anecdote seems to paint a grim local picture, it actually represents the national experience too. In fact, in this borough, we are very fortunate. The Local Authority and the fabulous Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) are working hard to identify and support those families with the greatest need.
There is no 'one stop' solution to this issue. It takes partnership, connections, trust, knowledge of communities, an innovative approach to tackling food poverty (doff of the hat to Cultivate Tees Valley, Barefoot Kitchen and Little Sprouts), the creation of meaningful opportunities, hard work, commitment and a localised approach.
In all of the sad encounters listed, help & support was offered in abundance once identified. In fact a whole lot more could be written about what is being done locally to tackle these issues, which is really uplifting! 💗
The sad fact is, that the issues exist in the first place and are only uncovered sporadically. The purpose of this is not to take away from the efforts of those attempting to address the issue, which includes ourselves. It is simply an account.
An account that is an absolute 'up yours' to all those who doubt that the problem exists. Or worst still, acknowledge it exists and pour scorn and judgement upon those affected, because let's face it, that helps absolutely no-one. Ever.
Mic drop 🎤
By Lucy Bentley
Quality Improvement Coordinator and DSO for Corner House Youth Project
Welcome to our blog! We have decided to add to our regular updates on social media, with a monthly blog. We hope to to give you some insight into our work at Corner House Youth Project and what drives us in the work that we do.
We are going to feature a different topic and viewpoint each week, ranging from hearing from our core staff and their day to day work, to posts from our young people and the issues they are passionate about.
We would also love to feature community members and professionals either locally (Stockton-on-Tees) or across the country and world! Please get in touch if you have a topic in mind and would like to contribute.
We look forward to hearing from you!