Climbing over the wall of sweetness

12th May 1995 at 01:00
One criticism levelled at Citizens' Service and similar schemes is that volunteers will tend to be middle-class, well-educated and cushioned by private funds. So, the argument goes, hopes of using voluntary community service to transform the jobless, indigent and alienated into responsible citizens are doomed. The story of Paul Thomas, 19, from Bridgend in South Wales, shows that this need not always be so.

Until recently, he seemed destined for a career in drugs and crime, punctuated by prison. School, he says, was a waste of time - "I was hardly ever there". Afterwards, he gained BTEC and City and Guilds qualifications in engineering and joined the Army. Six months later, he was discharged after an injury and began a long period of unemployment in which "nothing would go right; I was turned away from job after job".

He started using drugs, and crime predictably followed. In prison, he was unimpressed by well-meaning prison visitors who would "tell the inmates there were loads of jobs out there, it was like a wall of sweetness - patronising, not encouraging." It was also in prison that he heard about the Community Service Volunteers, but he says: "I thought it was just another way of telling us to get lost, so I forgot all about it until a year later, when I was out and heard friends talking about CSV and all the new friends they had made, so I thought I'd give it a crack."

The fact that CSV does not refuse anybody seems to have made a deep impression on Paul, for whom rejection has been a way of life.

He is now based at Felin Gelli, a farm near Carmarthen run by a charity, Stepping Stones, which runs residential and daycare places for mentally handicapped people who help out with the farm chores. Paul lives in a caravan and works from 9am-5.15pm, "which gets you used to normal working life". He says: "I used to make fun of handicapped people, like all my mates, but now I've learnt to appreciate them. In prison you look after number one; when you help people like this it proves you are capable of looking after someone else."

The Government would be "crazy not to expand the scheme", he said, but it would need better publicity. "Many unemployed people would say 'What's in it for me?'. Obviously, more financial encouragement would help." (He receives Pounds 23 spending money a week). Paul is optimistic about getting a job, but if not would be "quite happy to sign up for another 12 months".

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