Confidence tricks

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Many years ago, my Auntie Hilda, a gentle soul who kept chickens and rabbits in the countryside, found some absconded Borstal boys living in the woods near her house. She took them food and tea-making equipment. "Well," she said, when relatives remonstrated, "they haven't had a chance have they?"

It is a story which I cherish as it becomes increasingly clear that what so many young people need is someone to take them seriously - only a tiny proportion of city youngsters have any significant contact with adults other than at school or with their family.

This is the background to Weston Spirit - a programme for 16 to 18-year-olds that started in Liverpool, moved on to include Newcastle and Cardiff and this year will open in London. It takes its name from Simon Weston, the Falklands veteran.

His own youth was not, he reminded me, without its problems. "I know where some of these young people are coming from. A lot of the time they only meet an adult when they are in trouble - people in suits are people who punish, chastise or incarcerate."

The idea for Weston Spirit was born in 1986 on a remote island off the coast of New Zealand. There, as part of their assignment on Operation Raleigh, Simon Weston and a young Liverpool man, Paul Oginsky, were trying to kill a plague of rats before the re-introduction of the rare kakapo bird. Both were looking for something worthwhile to do in life.

"That's how it started." says Simon. "The two of us chatting on this rat-infested island. We had all sorts of weird ideas, none of them viable - you do go through these crazy thoughts."

Before leaving on Raleigh, Paul Oginsky had been talking to Ben Harrison who, like Paul, had left a conventional job in order to be a youth worker doing something for the "marginal" youngsters of whom the city of Liverpool has its full share. "I agreed with Ben that we'd do something when I got back from Raleigh, " says Paul. Eventually, Paul, Ben and Simon met and started to get their project off the ground.

At the root of it, they decided, would be a residential experience - young people spending a week away from home, with each other and with adult volunteers, learning about relationships. This, in itself, was nothing new - good residentials were run by other organisations. Often, though, the week away was all there was. They planned to use it as a beginning.

"It seemed to me that it was at the end of the residential that they became really ready for something more," says Paul. So, planning and fund-raising began. Simon's name and palpable enthusiasm opened doors, as it still does.

The first residential, with 10 young people, took place in Derbyshire in the autumn of 1987. Now 15 residentials in three cities are held every year in nearby countryside. Each is for 20 young people with five adult helpers. Afterwards, the youngsters become "members" for a year, and keep in touch with each other and with Weston Spirit adults through a "drop-in centre" in each of the cities, where there are helpers, advice, talks and voluntary activities within the community - with disabled and elderly people, for example.

Each member has the chance to complete, over the year, a personal record in the form of a City and Guilds Profile of Achievement - something to show to a prospective employer or training officer. Some 1,500 young people have completed the full programme.

The residentials emphasise relationships and there are team building games and discussions. "We are polite with them," says Paul Oginsky, "which unnerves them a bit at first. We aim for an adult relationship which is not judgmental. "

The founders wanted particularly to reach those young peole who had lost the drive even to be angry or disruptive. "At the centre of our target group are people who are apathetic," explains Paul. "It's a difficult group - it's actually easier to tackle aggression than apathy."

Recruitment is through visits to youth clubs, training programmes and schools. Young people are invited to an "intro day" of activities, ice-breaking and team-building exercises. Typically, 30 to 40 will turn up,and invitations to the residential will be made to the ones who seem able to benefit. "We're looking for those who start to show a bit of interest and involvement," says Paul. "It's a process that's been honed by experience and reflection."

Simon Weston says the emphasis, all the time, is on lifting up heads and giving confidence to youngsters who have begun to think themselves worthless. There are many stories of shy, diffident and socially inept members being given the wherewithal to go out and find jobs or training places, or to reject harmful peer pressures.

"What I try to impress on the youngsters is to make a difference in life - it doesn't matter if it's only in your street; make a difference! Take part in your own community and eventually something will turn around."

The results of any programme of this kind are always difficult to measure - figures from the organisation tell of 42 per cent of members finding employment; of 47 per cent going into further education or training, and of significant reductions in legal prosecutions and cautions. Without proper research, such numbers are of limited use, but everyone involved has a strong sense, based on day-to-day experience, of real progress.

To have given 1,500 young people this kind of experience is a huge achievement, measured from the starting point of that tent on the island off New Zealand. By other yardsticks, of course, the figure is still a drop in an ocean of damaged hopes. But as Paul Oginsky points out, Weston Spirit affects people beyond its own membership. "Families notice that their young people have changed, and we get letters from parents about that. Then the police tell us that young people don't commit crimes alone - so if we just tap into one group of peers then we're changing the pressures in that group. "

And perhaps most importantly, Weston Spirit demonstrates an effective way of improving the life chances of young people - "because," says Paul, "if we're not careful, we'll start to see young people as the enemy rather than as the future."

Finally, of course, there is the straight economic case - that it costs #163;1,500 per person per year in Weston Spirit, compared with #163;16,000 to keep a young person locked up. As David Alton, Lib Dem MP for Liverpool's Mossley Hill, comments on the organisation's promotional video."We're spending record sums of money on burglar alarms and means to stop criminals. The best investment we can make is in our young people. Organisations like Weston Spirit represent a very good investment. "

A #163;50,000 appeal has been lauched this year as Weston Spirit plans its London opening. Leaders from the group are available for talks and training sessions. Weston Spirit, 2 Roscoe Place, Bold Street, Liverpool L1 4HF. 0151 709 6620. Fax: 0151 707 0577

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