'I've never stuck at anything like this before'

25th January 2013 at 00:00
Extreme sports and employability skills are being picked up quickly on a voluntary training programme for teenagers whose lives once lacked direction

Savanna McCagh hasn't been to school since she was 13 and until recently her daily routine was to lie in bed until four in the afternoon.

Then 10 weeks ago, the 15-year-old joined the Alternative Academy at Transition Extreme and life has suddenly begun to look a whole lot more promising.

These days, Savanna's up out of bed before 8am every day and is planning to go back to school. She's also discovered a head for heights and a talent for climbing.

Transition Extreme is an extreme sports centre near Aberdeen Beach, which runs a voluntary training programme for teenagers referred here by schools or other agencies. The venture was developed with Robert Gordon University, with the idea that discovering alternative sports and activities helps to bring new purpose to lives that previously lacked direction.

So what was Savanna up to before her social worker suggested she came here? "Nothing. I didn't go to school or anything. I stopped going there two years ago," says the teenager, big eyes fringed with spidery black lashes. But coming here and discovering climbing has changed everything: "I love it," the former Harlaw Academy pupil says.

Like several of the teenagers in her group, Savanna was afraid of heights when she arrived. But she has overcome that and found a new passion in life. "Just by pushing myself and getting over it," she says. "I started climbing the big walls and got to the top. It was pretty scary but it's just something natural I am used to now."

Slim and agile, Savanna gets a buzz from scaling these towering 15-metre climbing walls. You can sense that she is proud and excited by her achievements: "It's just the fact that I have learned how to face my fear and the fact that I can climb and I am learning to lead climb," she says.

Looking back over the past few years, she recognises how coming here has changed her life. "I got in with the wrong crowd of people after I left school," she says. But as soon as she came here, something seemed to click. "I just think it's the fact that I loved it so much the first time I tried it," she says.

Savanna is one of the current group of teenagers on this full-time sports- based programme at Transition Extreme, a social enterprise that provides positive recreation for young people, as well as a range of activities for the wider community. Inside, there is a climbing wall centre and a skate park for BMX riding and inline skating. Outside, there is a vast aerial assault course.

"We have social programmes, one of which is the Alternative Academy, which is aimed at 15- to 18-year-olds who are not in employment or are disengaged with education," says Emma Kemp, the project coordinator at Transition Extreme. "It's a 12-week course aimed at re-engaging young people who have lost their way a little bit."

Teenagers choose climbing, BMX, inline skating or skateboarding for their Sport 1 module and receive four intensive coaching sessions a week, allowing them to reach a high level of competency that can equip them to help coach others.

They choose a second sport for their Sport 2 module and will also take classroom modules such as "My Future", which concentrates on employability skills, helping teenagers to identify a positive destination for their future.

"It's very much a person-centred module based on helping that young person find their path in life, find what it is they are interested in and giving them steps towards reaching their potential for the future," she says.

An enterprise module called Make it Happen encourages participants to develop new skills, organising fundraising ventures and events for charity and improving their ability to work in teams.

Alongside these core modules, the young people can gain recognised qualifications from the National Indoor Climbing Achievement Scheme, the Sports Leader and Youth Achievement Awards, which show prospective employers what they can do.

Twelve teenagers take part in each 12-week programme and participants who want to pursue jobs associated with any of the activities they have been learning can be offered a further three months' work experience at Transition Extreme.

"I think it works because it offers a way for the young people to harness their energy that's very practical," Ms Kemp explains. "It offers practical life skills, practical work experience and they can see their achievements day in and day out, and they can see themselves improve. They're having fun, they're engaging and making new friends - they're happier and more motivated."

To those who prefer to exercise with their feet firmly on the ground, the high ropes course outside Transition Extreme looks like a series of high- rise medieval torture systems. There's an aerial assault course, a zip wire and something called a fan drop, which you can leap off like a bungee jumper if your nerves can take it.

Secondary and primary school children come and use the equipment here during their Activities Week, providing they meet the minimum height restriction. But the high life is not for everyone and some of those on the Alternative Academy prefer to stick to lower-level adrenalin sports. Like Andrew Morrice, 16, who came here from Alford Academy. "I'm scared of heights and it's just too high," he says, looking warily up at the high ropes course.

"It doesn't look so bad here, but when you go up onto the top platform and look down, it's like 10 storeys," says Andrew, who is enjoying BMX training and making good progress with the indoor climbing walls, supported by instructors and friends.

"It's great here," he adds. "Meeting all the guys is good and learning to do the BMX and the rock wall, too." He's hoping to get an apprenticeship to do mechanics or painting and decorating eventually.

His friend, Chay Malcolm, isn't keen on heights either, preferring to choose BMX and other sports. Chay, 16, left St Machar Academy two years ago in third year: "It's good here, I like it," he says. "I wanted to get something out of life. This has helped me a lot - I've got team-working skills and I've enjoyed it a lot. I didn't have the confidence at school, but my confidence has gone straight through the roof here."

Chay is now looking for a job or an apprenticeship, and regrets leaving school so young: "Stick in at school - that's all I've got to say," he advises.

Another student, Kieran Raffan, 17, tackled the aerial course for the first time today - "the thing where you have to walk off the edge," he says. "I feel amazing - like there's fireworks going off in my head - I'm so happy."

He left Kincorth Academy before his exams in fourth year and found it difficult to get work. "A lot of places don't accept people with no qualifications," he says. He has found the whole Alternative Academy amazing and is now hoping to go to college to study animal care or PE.

So what's happening here to inspire disaffected youngsters? The diversionary activities on offer are different from the usual mainstream sports such as tennis and football and attract youngsters looking for something different, according to sports operations manager Duncan Paterson.

He says that teenagers are attracted to the programme, which is delivered in a welcoming, informal environment where they get a lot more personal response to their achievements.

The magic ingredient, he says, comes from the staff: "It's the personality, the enthusiasm and the inspiration from the staff member that then rubs off on the young people - that's what they take away."

Young people such as Savanna seem to agree. "I would recommend this to anyone," she says. "Because it gets you motivated more and because you get qualifications doing this as well."

She's now working out at the gym and does BMXing as her second activity. "I don't want to finish here. I like it too much - I love it," she says. She hopes to get an internship here and perhaps a full-time job.

But for the immediate future, the plan is to return to full-time education at Westburn School in Aberdeen. "It's a school for people who couldn't stay in school, because obviously they have some problems," she explains.

It has taken guts and tenacity for these teenagers to come this far: "It's really difficult sometimes, but you've just got to not give up," Savanna says. "I've never stuck at anything like this before. Nobody thought I was going to last a week here."


One parent sums up the difference it's made to his son in a testimonial on Transition Extreme's website.

"My son would give up and walk away from anything that was difficult before the Alternative Academy, but now he has a real determination to succeed, belief in himself and a clear sense of direction in what he wants to do and how to achieve it."



More than 100 teenagers have taken part in the award-winning Alternative Academy and 90 per cent have moved on to positive destinations since the programme launched in 2009.

Some, like 17-year-old Stuart Howell, find jobs here. It's almost two years since he came after leaving Aberdeen Grammar.

"I found school really hard in S5, so I left because I was struggling. I came here to the course and did that for 12 weeks," says Stuart, who has a job here as a BMX coach, after an internship.

He thinks the Alternative Academy does what it says on the tin, offering teenagers an alternative to mainstream education.

"It can give you opportunities for jobs and more qualifications," he says. "When I was on the course, I saw quite a few of my friends changing for the better. They learn differently here - it's more practical and physical."

Aiden Beverley is a friend of Stuart's and another graduate of the Alternative Academy who now works here alongside him. Aiden left Dyce Academy in fifth year and as well as enjoying opportunities for outdoor sports like coasteering and canoeing, he took up the art activities on offer.

He now feels happier and more confident and hopes to study art and design at college.

"This course helped me a lot and gave me more confidence - more or less a second chance to do well," says Aiden, who's now coaching skateboarding at Transition Extreme.

Photo: Savanna, 15, has become a skilled climber and says she overcame her fear by `just pushing herself and getting over it'. Photo credit: Simon Price


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