Full of spark for the community

7th July 2000 at 01:00
A new pilot is giving local people who have no formal training the confidence to see through ideas to benefit their district. Mary Hampshire reports.

"I HAD my first baby at 15. I finished school without qualifications. I was bright but I was told I couldn't do nine O-levels and have a baby," says Gwen Baybut, aged 32. Now the mother-of-five is planning a community child-care centre.

"I know people need this. Parents don't know what to do with their teenagers, let alone their teenagers' children."

Ms Baybut is one of four adult learners, selected from 43 applicants, for the first regional School of Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) in Salford, Greater Manchester. The one-year pilot project - which will continue if further funding is secured - aims to foster talent among those who want to establish a "social firm" - one which makes money for the public's benefit - but have not necessarily had a formal education.

"We wanted community spark- plugs," says Chris Dabbs, local co-ordinator of the Salford SSE, "individuals who don't just say 'Oh, that's awful' about an issue, but who do something about it. They have a vision of what they want to achieve to improve their community and enthuse others."

The school is funded by Manchester, Salford and Trafford health action zone, with Salford community health council, and the students receive a bursary of pound;10,000 for the year.

The budding entrepreneurs start with a social business idea and learn by putting it into action. They devote 37 hours a week to their project. The focus is on practical tasks rather than academic exercises and exam results. Themes include social change and entrepreneurial behaviour and tools. The syllabus includes formulating reports, writing a business plan, marketing, publicity, sources of finance, charity law and fund-raising.

Approximately three days a month are based in the classroom. The students also attend seminars given by people who have realised their own ideas, visit organisations and have individual tutorials. The rest of the time is spent setting up their community business.

The first hurdle for some was overcoming bad memories. "I was nervous," says Jay Brennan, aged 43, a single mother who has done voluntary work in her community for 10 years. "At school, I asked too many questions and the teacher threw chalk at me."

In the first lesson, she took a defensive stance. "I told our lecturer I wasn't going to change for anybody because it's false. She warned me that I would, but in a positive way. She was right."

Ms Brennan's proposal is to hold alternative health classes on her estate. In the past, she set up a Heartstart initiative, training local people in basic life support.

"A community health worker encouraged me to apply fo the SSE. I thought she was mad," says Ms Brennan. "I had no presentation or information technology skills and I'd not written a report in my life. But since starting the course, I've given presentations to chief executives, during a concept development day, and used jargon I used to be baffled by.

"I've flourished. I'm a lot better at dealing with officials. Before, I'd feel like the door was being slammed in my face. I'd be put off speaking to them if they wore suits. I thought they were posh and wouldn't listen to me."

Charlotte Richards, 37, a single mother of two, plans to develop social clubs for 10 to 18-year-olds. "My friends tease me down the pub. They say: 'This is Charlotte. She's a social entrepreneur.' I felt I'd hit stardom," she says.

Where she lives, children are barred from playing football on the streets, but the nearest playgrounds are a mile away - one on the other side of a dark subway and another across two busy main roads and a bridge. Meanwhile, Manchester United FC's ground is within sight.

Ms Richards, who chairs a community group, has 1.5 acres of reclaimed land that has been empty for eight years. She plans to create a skateboard and ball park, a community garden and a play area. She is aiming to liaise with council chiefs and secure grants.

Six months into the project, she is now much more confident about dealing with bureaucracy.

"I left school with no qualifications," says Ms Richards. "I told my dad I wanted to go to college. He said: 'Don't be so silly.'

"The course has changed the way I view problems. When you hit an obstacle you find a different way around it. I should have learned these things at 17. It's 20 years late, but it feels great."

Janette Ball, a 46-year-old mother of two, who admits to "always wagging off school", has established a residents' association. Now she is developing six acres of play and leisure facilities. With the backing of Greater Manchester Police, she has a television crew interested in filming a revamp of the land.

"We are being paid, and given a label, for doing what we've always done in our communities," she says of the pilot course. "But it's given me kudos. I'm more professional dealing with officials.

"My biggest fear is that some of the local toe-rags will destroy my project. I've had a word with one of the criminal underworld. I think he'll keep a rein on them."

The social entrepreneurs' enthusiasm seems to be paying off. Ms Brennan says:

"A friend said I inspired her to talk to a group after she had a panic attack speaking in public. 'Jay,' she said, 'if you can do it so can I.' That really made my day." 'I'm a lot better at dealing with officials. Before I'd feel like the door was being slammed in my face.'

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