Moving stories

7th April 2000 at 01:00
Sharen Wood and her boyfriend, David Chapple, have set out to record the human tales behind the run-down estate where she grew up, and pass on film-making skills that could help its young people look beyond drugs and crime. Steve Hook reports

Sharp shooters (small picture): Sharen Wood, centre, back row, looks on as David Chapple passes on his video editing skills. Main picture: the Raffles estate, where the council is demolishing houses in a 'final solution' to the problem of finding tenants

Sharen Wood looks out of the window of her council house at a group of small children in the street. As they play happily with a homemade go-kart, arguing about whose turn it is to be pushed along the pavement, it is difficult to imagine that this place is regarded by many as the no-go area of Carlisle.

Such is the stigma attached to Raffles, an estate blighted by unemployment, crime and drug abuse. It's a neighbourhood that seems a million miles away from the tranquillity of the Lake District, just half an hour's drive away - a neighbourhood for which the term social exclusion could have been invented. More than one in two residents are on housing benefit; the estate has only 13 owner-occupiers. Local children have been known to miss school because they have no shoes to wear.

Sharen, 32, was born on the estate and has lived there most of her life, apart from a two-year period 20 years ago, when her family moved into a caravan to get a break from their surroundings. Although she never went back to school after that, Sharen is one of the few Raffles residents to have benefited from higher education; she studied from home before starting as a mature student at Carlisle college of art and design, doing a two-year BTEC media studies course and a media degree specialising in film and TV production. That's where she met her boyfriend, David Chapple, 29, from Gravesend in Kent.

"Of relatives and friends I've known since primary school," says Sharen, "most have died from heroin. There are about three left, and when I see them in the street I'm surprised they are still alive. I don't want to see the next generation going through that."

These are no empty words. Sharen and David have been commissioned by the estate's youth and community workers, Julie Nugent and Terry Boyle, to teach young people film skills, which they have been doing now for six months.

On a desk at the Raffles community centre sit the centre's film and sound editing machine, Hi-8 video camera and television. It's a modest set-up, but the couple have big ambitions - to raise local youths' aspirations above the limited horizon of poverty, unemployment and drugs.

They have just finished a 20-minute film about Raffles, Enemy of the Estate, for which they interviewed the local vicar, the council's housing director and local youths, whose simple, angry language says so much more than the planning-speak of the city's civic masters.

The film cost pound;3,000 to make. Money came from the National Lottery, Children in Need and the Single Regeneration Budget. But funds for such projects are inevitably tight - the centre has to give priority to more traditional areas of activity such as mainstream youth work and pre-school provision, for which there is no shortage of demand.

The community centre is using the film in a bid to secure funding for a pound;40,000, four-year project to record the social history of the estate as the ity council proceeds with the demolition of 472 of its 1,428 properties - a final solution to its failure to find tenants for more than 300 houses there. Sharen and David hope the film will detail the human stories behind an estate in decline.

The couple are already victims of their own success - they have been approached by a group of children who want to make a fly-on-the-wall piece about themselves on a survival course in the local countryside, while another group want to make a sitcom. Indeed, Sharen and David have been taken aback by the number of children who come to their house eager to suggest ideas. Children who take part in the project will get certificates to show they have tackled the basics of scripting, filming and editing, but it is about something more fundamental than practical skills - it's about raising self-esteem.

"The idea is to get these kids involved in something by getting them to help us record the social history of the estate," says Sharen. "Loads of kids have left with few qualifications, and all the people I know on Raffles are unemployed. They can't see the point of education and we want to show them learning can be fun."

David has lived on high-rise estates before, but here, as an outsider, he has had to work hard to be accepted. "We've set out to work with some of the kids who appear to be having the hardest time," he says. "I found it difficult to start with. The kids here can give you a lot of abuse. I was pretty frightened of them to start with, even the small ones. But I feel more confident with them now. They're actually good kids, most of them."

Having won the children's confidence, Sharen and David dream of giving them the sort of skills they need to get into higher education. "It would be nice if one of them ended up on a media course like the one we did," says David.

Demolition work is expected to take until 2003, but many residents believe it won't stop there. The Reverend Stephen Skinner, who lives on the estate and is active in the community, expects the entire estate to be demolished eventually. "Carlisle is a very conservative city, and Raffles has a terrible reputation," he says. "I don't think the rest of the city will give it a chance."

Back at the community centre, a small boy, aged about eight, presses his face against the window and shouts obscenities before running away. Community worker Terry Boyle, an Ulsterman who has learned to treat adversity with a certain gentle humour, believes Sharen and David's work is making a difference. "Before, when kids looked through the windows, it was to check who was in here so they could go and burgle their houses. It was getting to the point where we would have to send minders round to the homes of people who came up here for meetings.

"There's a strong 'alternative' economy on the estate, which means people have certain skills as individuals but they're not so good at working in groups. Educationally, that's what makes the film project so valuable, because it gives young people a sense of ownership. It teaches them teamwork.

"We took a group of kids to the lake not long ago and they just sat in the middle in a huge boat going nowhere because nobody would row and they were all blaming each other for the fact the boat wasn't moving. They started drifting before the penny dropped and they realised if they didn't pull together they were going to be there for ever."

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