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Straight from the art

Creative project recruits isolated professionals to help wayward youngsters. Martin Whittaker reports

As a computer wizard, Toby Kerridge often uses baffling technical terms but now he needs to mind his language. Having never taught, he finds himself tutoring three young adults who have had a rough time in their short lives.

None flourished in education, in contrast to Toby who studied interaction design at the Royal College of Art. (He defines the subject simply as "building computers for people".) Now he's doing research there and is also a successful freelance. But his work means long solitary periods in front of a glowing screen.

Artswork, a youth development agency on the South coast, has identified Toby as one of a new breed - "relatively young (21-35) with little access to further professional development and few or no resources available either to interact with others or pass on skills."

So it's set up a scheme in four Sussex towns where experts mentor and tutor people from outside the mainstream.

In a converted chapel, part of Chichester's Ox Market arts centre, Toby and his three charges are in the early stages of a project that will last until May. He's introducing them to Adobe Illustrator, a software package that offers myriad artistic possibilities.

Daniel Watson, 20 hits a problem. "What's happening, Tobe?" he asks. "Do you want the long answer or the short one?" Toby replies. "A lot of the time I just talk rubbish," he says, cheerfully self-deprecating. "But I have learned to go back over things."

He's swiftly built up good relations with the three diverse characters.

There's Gemma Stapleford, 19, who lives in the Chichester foyer, one of 56 foyer projects in Britain that aim to help young people find training or work. Then there's Daniel, living in a hostel; and Alec Clark, 22, with a mental illness, who lives alone and was referred by his psychiatric nurse.

Toby has a plan of what he wants to cover; but no quantifiable targets - his audience is not ready for narrow achievement goals.

Gemma in fact was doing fine at school - "I was Miss Goodie two shoes" - until Year 11 when she "just stopped". "I started lying in bed all day, doing nothing," she said. "The longer I stayed off, the harder it was to go back. I blamed it all on my dad when he left home. At the moment I don't want to go back into more education - I might mess up again."

Gemma's plan is to feel her way back into things through the project, which she applied for after seeing an advertisement. It takes up two days a week, and she will do office work - unpaid to start with - the rest of the time.

On screen she does weird and wonderful things with scanned photographs of local street scenes.

Alec experiments on a photo of himself, transformed into the image of a skydiver. He's a great fan of the Matrix films. "The nurse thought it would be good if I went out and interacted with other people," said Alec, who because of his illness, is signed off from work until 2006. In the past he's worked as a cleaner and kitchen porter; and, already knows the rudiments of Windows. "Coming here's boosted my confidence. I wouldn't mind going on to college once I've learned everything. I'm planning to stick with it."

Daniel was referred by a key worker. After dropping out of school he went to Chichester College and did an art course but did not complete it. He lived with various family members before ending up at the hostel. He's scanned in some of his own artwork - fantastic images, mainly of women.

Bright, with a quick wit, he's not sure where the project will lead but may yet pick up the threads of his interest in art. By their end-of-year show in May, they'll know much more about each other and themselves.

After May Artswork will work with supporters, tutors and agencies to find a way forward for each individual. It's also in partnership with Arts Council England and the Youth Justice Board setting up training for artists who work with young people at risk.

Academics will also assess the results of the project on students and tutors. "We anticipate wide interest, both here and abroad," said manager Andy Robinson.

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