CYC-Online 63 APRIL 2004
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Bringing hope to Britain's derelict docklands

Angela Devlin

Social exclusion and widespread unemployment present a dim future for many of England's youth. Two innovative community intervention programs are working to restore hope “and results show that their efforts are paying off.

Jamie comes sailing over the dirt-track jump like a young prince, confident and proud astride his Kawasaki KTM 125 motorcycle. He slithers obediently to a halt at a signal from his tutor, the epitome of cool in his heavy-duty biking gear. Jamie, 14, listens quietly, nodding as the tall young man points out his errors and sends him off around the track again.

"It’s amazing," says Chris, standing next to me on a hill beside the track. “This is a kid who can’t concentrate for five minutes, even to watch TV. He’s so hyperactive he even plays with his model cars in his sleep. He won’t take orders from anyone, and he’s been permanently excluded from school. But just look at him now."

Youth worker Chris has brought Jamie to the track from the facility for expelled students where he now spends his school days. A record 13,500 children like Jamie have been permanently excluded from school in England and Wales during the past year alone. The lives of these young people are characterized by unemployment, crime, low educational achievement, social exclusion, drugs, and racism. But there are those who are working to save them.

One of these is a remarkable young woman named Allison Wylde, a scientist with a doctoral degree who left a university research career to set up and run the Newham Docklands Motorcycle Project (NDMP) here. Since it was established back in 1993 in response to local community needs, the project and its 15 staff members have trained 4,500 of these young people at risk. Says Allison, “I was brought in to write a feasibility study with a local youth group working with disaffected young men who were hanging “round on street corners and causing havoc. There was lots of illegal and dangerous motorcycle riding going on, so that’s where the bike idea came from."

I’d always been interested in motorbikes myself, and I’ve been riding for years. It’s a bit of a culture shock to these macho young lads when they see me on a bike, but it’s good for them” and we attract girls as well. Our core group is from age 12 through 18, and there’s an adult group as well. Most of the younger ones are referred to us through the local education authority, the behavior support and tuition service, local schools, and a variety of voluntary groups. Because Moto-X [pronounced motacross] is such an exciting new sport, we get a lot of self-referrals as well. We hope to catch young people before they've got in trouble with the police, though some are already involved with crime and street drugs. We give them opportunities to succeed. We give them self-worth and responsibility."

To construct the track “London's only custom-built Moto-X facility “the youthful NDMP staff hired a digger and physically shifted tons of earth. They created dramatic jumps, platforms, and slopes where young people can meet real challenges as they learn sophisticated cornering and braking techniques on state-of-the art machines. The project office is situated a few hundred yards from the dirt track, its walls covered with promotional posters “action shots of bikers with the snappily worded invitation, “Wanna have a go?"

The project is based in the Newham College of Further Education. “That gives us credibility," says Allison. “When I wrote the feasibility study, I said the program must have a strong educational component." But these are kids for whom school has failed, so there is no formal classroom teaching “though they can gain formal, nationally recognized qualifications in a workshop where young tutors teach bike-related mechanics. As Allison explains, these are all transferable skills, and the young people learn to work with others: “It’s dead simple. You work in a small group, you build trust, young people’s confidence improves, and it impacts their personal and social development."

Support for the project comes from a variety of charitable trusts, private businesses, and local and central government. “We started with a steering group and myself," Allison explains. “I started by delivering some basic sessions. We just had my own bike at that time and no equipment. Then I started fund-raising. I wrote letters to various people and said, “This is a really good idea; this is the kind of thing we can do. Give us the money and we’ll do it." This was a very difficult process, and I was financially out on a limb because I wasn’t even paid at that time. So I was kind of winging it, just deciding if it was all going to work or not, and making contact with various funders. Then I met a woman from the Baring Foundation [a charity set up by a merchant bank], and she came along and thought it was a really good idea and I got a check the next day! That was our base funding, and that was the motivation for other funders to get involved, because once one funder comes on board you’re much more likely to get others."

In the workshop stands Peter, kitted up in his leathers, leaning on a half-stripped bike as one of the tutors draws electrical circuits on a whiteboard on the wall. Peter is 24 and at the top end of the project’s target age range, though he looks much younger with his shaven head and earrings. It is a surprise to hear he has two children, 15 months and 4 months old. “I’ve got to think of my kids now," grins Peter, “and through coming here I’ve got myself a job. I work in a store that imports KZs and Harleys from California “old classics that people like to buy to fix up for themselves. My boss is pleased with me. I’ve already sold 11 bikes for him since I started work two months ago. He’s even saying he may take me to the States to see his outfit there “so I may get to travel as well as getting a good job. I’ve always loved bikes. I was riding them round here illegally since I was about 14. A lot of people round here do that “bikes are cheap, fast, and easier to nick [steal] than cars."

Moto-X racing is shown frequently on the satellite channel Sky Television and cable TV “it is an offbeat sport and its heroes are adored. They are ideal young role models “Carl Nunn, the reigning British Moto-X champion, is just 18, and his shirt, donated to the project, is displayed proudly in the office.

Motivation to come and join the coaching school is strong. “You can actually get people off drugs because of the motivation," says Allison. “This is a sport, and drugs are not acceptable. We tell them drugs cause danger to others as well as themselves, and we won’t tolerate them."

* * *

The same sense of hopefulness inspires a program in Chatham, about 30 miles southeast of the Docklands. Situated in the county of Kent, fondly known to tourists as the Garden of England because of its strawberry fields and apple orchards, Chatham seems a world away from the desolate Docklands. But appearances can be deceptive. When the Royal Navy closed its Chatham base in the early 1980s, ending a 400-year presence in this community, 7,000 jobs were lost and three generations of local men were put out of work, leading to the highest unemployment levels in Britain at that time. Like London's docklands, East Kent is still an area where young people face great problems of social exclusion, youth crime, and drug abuse.

Steve Mellers spends his days at the Historic Dockyard as manager of Fairbridge Kent. You reach Fairbridge by following the course of the old docks railway alongside the vast echoing covered slipways, where great warships were once built, until you reach a long low building at the water’s edge. Steve is a tall, lean man with an army background. Like Allison, he has faith that there is good in all young people, whatever their background, and like Allison, his mission is to challenge them to achieve their full potential.

Unlike the Newham Project, Fairbridge is a big national scheme with II projects all over the country, including an expedition center in Scotland and a sail-training ship called Spirit of Scotland. The aim is to sponsor outdoor expeditions that enable at-risk young people from the inner cities to learn the skills they need to participate fully in today’s society.

Fairbridge Kent runs a basic initial program lasting seven days, followed by a series of support services and further youth projects. “These days, many young people need something to start them off," explains Steve, “and our basic course is a kick-start. We have to make it interesting and exciting as well as challenging and purposeful, and I find that using the outdoors has a very big impact in a very short space of time. If I could do the same thing in a pub playing darts, I would. But that just doesn’t work!"

The program’s age range is much the same as in Newham, 14 through 25, with about 15% of the participants girls. Referrals also come from education and from the Probation Service, local young offenders” teams, drug rehabilitation agencies, and homeless people’s hostels. But as in London, participation in the project is entirely voluntary, and a fair proportion, 13%, refer themselves because of the program’s appeal.

Steve is emphatic about being nonjudgmental: “I don’t want to know anything at all about the young people when they arrive “I’m not interested. When they walk through that door, they all start with a clean slate, whatever offenses they may or may not have committed."

The telephone rings, interrupting Steve’s account. It is one of the instructors, calling from the Snowdonia National Park, a bleak, mountainous region of North Wales. “Okay," says Steve, “if there’s an 80-mile-an-hour gale blowing, you'll have to postpone the hill walk till tomorrow." This cold Monday in mid-December, 15 young men and women are in the middle of a four-day expedition. Fairbridge paid for it, but the young people earned it. Last Thursday they met in the dockyard as total strangers, but within half an hour, thanks to ice-breaking games, they knew one another’s names. By the end of the day, they were beginning to work as teams. Out in the old dockyard, each group of five was given some barrels, planks, and ropes and told to make a raft. Steve pointed to an island across the water: “There’s a man stranded out there. Your task as groups is to get over there and rescue him, and keep him dry, warm, and safe “till help arrives." By the end of that exercise, says Steve, “you can tell the workers, the shirkers, the leaders, and the followers. Then we can engineer the next day’s activities to help people make up what they lack. Everything we do is student-led."

On Friday they went climbing: “We build in the excitement, actually talk up the danger, warn them that this or that bit can be quite slippery–because what we need is the support of the rest of the group in case someone falls. You’d be surprised how people respond. We often get kids who–ve been bullies at school, but amazingly we hardly ever get any problems of that sort on the course. They are learning the responsibility of looking after somebody else’s welfare. We never get any vandalism either because they know this center belongs to them, not to me. I’m just the manager."

Saturday is crunch day, when the instructors decide whether to take the young people away on an expedition for the next four days. “We hit them with the question, “Are we a good enough team to go away on expedition?” What we’re actually doing now is bringing in negotiating and justification skills. they’ll say, “Yes, we’re absolutely brilliant, everything’s great,” and we’ll say, “Right–then we don’t need to go away! Convince us why we should take you.” We ask them what will make the expedition work, and what could make it fail. We say we can offer them the transport, the equipment. What can they offer us? They come up with all sorts of things: “I promise to make everyone a cup of tea every morning”; “I'll do all the washing-up”; We mustn’t have any bullying.” We write all these things down on the board, then transfer them to paper and everybody’s got to be happy to sign it. We have now made a contract which we can take with us and review at any stage.

“So now we’re planning the expedition, and the rest of the afternoon is spent preparing. Each group has an area of responsibility. One group’s in charge of the tents and equipment, the second's in charge of the stores–making shopping lists, planning a budget, going out to buy the food. The third group will have responsibility for the bus–making sure it’s full of oil and water, the windows and mirrors are clean, the tire pressures checked. Then it’s time to pack, which involves a lot of skills. It’s no good turning up at the campsite in the dark and finding the tents are at the bottom with that night’s food for supper–especially as an hour or two after they arrive, they’ll be out on night navigation exercises, or doing a midnight abseil [rappel] down a rock face. Everything is designed to be physically demanding but to allow people to succeed“Whether it takes them two hours or 20. they’ll be back here at the dockyard by about two o–clock on Wednesday, but the course doesn’t end until every piece of kit is washed, polished, and put back on the shelves."

The most important part – the follow-up – is yet to come. The instructors spend a full day writing reviews of participants – performance, skillfully assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Nobody sees this report except the young person concerned. Steve says this confidentiality is crucial to the project’s success. Then everyone returns for a reunion and gets a certificate, presented formally by Steve amid clapping and cheers.

This growing assurance will serve them well. Throughout England, some 67,000 young people aged 16 through 18 have failed to find employment since leaving school. In such a hopeless atmosphere, the skills and self-confidence fostered by community interventions can make a vital difference. “We know we are making an impact," says NDMP’s Allison Wylde. “We can track young people who have progressed into regular employment, and I see that as a positive outcome."

Steve Mellers agrees. Many participants in his Fairbridge project accept their certificates with renewed confidence. “So many of them say this is the first qualification they have ever had. I tell them we hope this isn’t the end, but the beginning of their involvement with Fairbridge. I ask them to try and think where they would like to be in five years” time. Nine out of ten keep in touch with us."

This feature: Delvin, A. (1999). Bringing hope to Britain's derelict docklands. Reaching Today’s Youth. Vol.3 No.3. pp.18-21

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