Wednesday, 29 June 2016

My youth work story - how this mixed up kid found a purpose

For the last few days, as part of Youth Work Week in Wales, we in @YJBCymru have been sharing quotes from youth workers in youth justice services. We wanted to show how youth workers make a difference to the lives of some of our most vulnerable children.

This has prompted me to share more widely how I came to youth work and where it's led me since - still, I hope, with a youth work ethos; still making a difference.

About 15 years ago I was in a pretty mixed up place. I'd decided being an academic wasn't for me, dropped out of a PhD and spent a couple of years self-employed as a building contractor.

It was pretty ironic that I'd left education and gone back to a skill I'd learned with my dad to make a living, because he always told me a degree would be 'something to fall back on'. Academia didn't suit me though.

While the PhD in Political Philosophy (which was a postmodern critique of liberalists like John Rawls) meant I'd lost contact with the 'real world' - too much thinking and not enough action - the world I'd returned to, the career my father had always encouraged me to aspire beyond, was too much action and not enough thinking.

I gradually found myself feeling less and less happy with work and eventually, at the point where I was sitting in my van outside a supermarket scoffing pumpkin muffins, trying to find reasons for not starting the next job - I had to admit something needed to change. But what to do?

My stroke of luck was that one of my closest friends worked as a co-ordinator for volunteer mentors. She ever so delicately suggested that if I needed something to think about, something to focus on, I might try helping someone else. It might be better than getting all introspective. It felt like she'd given me a bit of a challenge.

So, I found myself sitting nervously with a motley collection of other people of various ages, from all kinds of backgrounds getting induction training on things like child protection, disclosure and confidentiality. I was then assigned a mentee - a young man who was having trouble with substance misuse and was under the supervision of the local youth offending team.

I won't say all my career dilemmas disappeared as such trivia paled into insignificance alongside his much more pressing worries but they were certainly forgotten whenever I was with him. I guess that forming a relationship with him, learning about his life and having nothing more than patience, interest and care to offer was, for me, a form of what we now call mindfulness. When I was with him I couldn't think about anything else.

As a volunteer I was on a mailing list for training and, also being a keen climber, my eye was caught by a weekend course on using the outdoors for youth work. This led to sessional work with Summer Splash; a programme of activities during the school holidays, targeted at areas of high deprivation and high crime. Funnily enough my first paid job as a youth worker was funded by this strange sounding organisation - the Youth Justice Board.

Being part of the team for a residential camping trip to the Gower really made everything click into place. I found myself using all the seemingly random skills and abilities I'd picked up over the years to work with young people. All those thinking skills I'd learned as a student seemed to combine with my love of the outdoors and my ability to make things. I designed and made outdoor games - like a giant ball-in-a-maze game where 4 young people had to cooperate in getting a golf ball from one end of a 4'x8' sheet of plywood to the other. I planned barbeques and helped out on the abseiling. I played guitar round the camp fire. And I stayed up half the night persuading some of the 'hardest' lads in the city to give it another day and see if they could get used to the creepy night noises. It was exhausting but more rewarding than anything I'd experienced before.

From there I got a part time job as a detached youth worker, enrolled on the youth and community work course before joining the local YOT as a support worker with the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme. I joined the ranks of youth workers who are in most every youth offending team and part of the wider community of people who work in a targeted way with young people who find it hard to fit in - who aren't natural 'joiners'. They're the kind of young people who don't naturally go to a youth club or find themselves excluded from group activities.

Over the years, I've moved away from direct work with young people, through service management and getting involved in policy formation. At every stage, though, the main aim has been focussing on relationships and trying to make a difference. Now, having responsibility for some of the most vulnerable young people - those held in custody - I actually feel like I do more direct work with young people than at other points in my career, such as when I was managing other youth workers.

There are around 40 young people from Wales in Custody and we have space for 70 young people in Welsh custodial establishments. I and my team have to make decisions about where they are placed and make judgements about how our providers are meeting their needs. I still try to keep the youth work principles I learned at the centre of how I do my work today. There aren't many of these young people, so I know a lot of their names and I get to meet a fair few of them. And whenever I do, I get that same experience of forgetting my day to day worries and trivia by concentrating on their lives, their aspirations and their voices.

That's why I still love youth work and why this week of celebration has reminded me why I'm in this job.