Volunteering in an African village has given troubled youngsters in the UK a new lease of life. Neil Levis reports
IT is a long journey from Hull to Bamukumbit, an impoverished village in north-west Cameroon. For Ryan Hutchinson, 21, working as a volunteer in west Africa - organising sports training for villagers his own age, undertaking development work and studying a new culture at first hand - it was more than geographical displacement: the move was turning his life around too.
Back home in Hull, he was going nowhere. "I was unemployed and spent my days smoking cannabis and nights drinking beer just to stop myself being bored," he said.
"I had been in trouble for driving offences. I saw my future working in a factory - it was depressing."
Today, he is a confident young man who has held down a steady job working in his family's chip shop for the past two years. He has happy memories of his four months in Cameroon - he knows he made a difference to the people of Bamukumbit but, more importantly, the experience changed him.
"I've got a much more positive outlook today," he said. "Going to Africa changed me. You see people who have so little and yet they are so happy. It puts your own problems into perspective."
His transformation has been made possible by an innovative programme, Active8, which help young people caught in cycles of no hope. It takes them away from their own worlds by sending them overseas with Raleigh International or the Voluntary Service Overseas.
The aim is two-fold: to make them realise there are people with far more basic problems than theirs, but also to break up the youngsters' negative peer groups in England and bring them back with a fresh motivation and determination to succeed.
"We aim to move them on socially," said Dave Bertholini, who started the scheme in Hull back in 1998. "They are mixing abroad with many different people - other volunteers - who are more privileged than themselves and, of course, the indigenous people who are incredibly poor.
"It's a different perspective for them and many of them can't help but be changed."
The recruits fulfil the New Deal criteria - they are aged 16 to 24 and have been out of work for six months. They include former offenders, substance-abusers or young people from the care system, many of them living in hostels.
"Many leave school and drift," said Carol Ideson, Active8 manager in Hull.
"They might have problems with reading and writing and lack of self-esteem.
Lots of them live in hostels. They are looking for something exciting.
These young people don't want to spend 30 hours a week in a classroom - it's not their way of learning."
The scheme starts with an emphasis on fitness - many of these young people have never done much physical education. But they do not take part in traditional school sports - they opt for go-karting, baseball, volleyball or ice hockey. They are also encouraged to become referees or community sports leaders.
"Exercise makes people feel better and fitness raises self-esteem," said Neil Davison, who works daily with the 80 young people who undertake Active8 every year.
"The variety of the programme means there is never one star - everything is based on fun. A lot of them are scared to let go in front of other people but we never ask them to do anything beyond their reach."
There are also visits to museums and to places outside the city, because a lot of the youngsters have never been outside Hull.
"The purpose is to change their perceptions," said Mr Davison. "It's good to get them out of their urban environment. We show them that other things are attainable."
The leisure activities are backed by instruction in numeracy, literacy and information and communications technology, as well as practical help with life skills.
"The problems they bring with them require so much help," said Mr Davison.
"We might reorganise things so that someone can get counselling or advice if their housing benefits have gone wrong."
There is also a strong emphasis on time-keeping.
"For some, catching the minibus on time to go on trips is a massive step forward," said Mr Davison.
"When you're unemployed, it's easy to become a night person and slip into that whole culture."
Gradually, they build up to more challenging tasks - hill-walking, rock-climbing, and eventually a two-week sailing voyage, where their own safety and that of others depends on them behaving responsibly.
"There's a scariness in a good challenge," said Mr Davison. "We are taking them out of the comfort zone. Three youngsters were sailing near Newcastle and were woken at 4am to start the day. They were sleeping in the cramped quarters of a boat. They learn tolerance. They might be cold or feeling sick, but they have to overcome these trials. It's a great team-building exercise."
All of which is building up to the greatest challenge of all - their trip abroad. In an African village, they work on practical projects such as water preservation, building toilets, increasing Aids awareness and, most popular of all, taking sports sessions for the young Africans.
The enthusiasm with which this is greeted can be overwhelming - one lad landed in Uganda to teach football with one ball, and the children from four villages turned up.
"Seven weeks into their trip to Africa you wouldn't recognise them," said Mr Davison.
"They're not just tourists any more. They see those who have nothing and yet they are happy. Suddenly, their worries pale into insignificance."
Back in Britain, many of the Active8 youngsters cannot wait to return and sign up for fresh volunteer assignments. But the real aim is to get them into work.
Not every story ends in success, however. Mr Davison has tears in his eyes as he recalls one lad who went back to his old friends, relapsed into drugs and later died.
"Peers are their greatest friends and their worst enemies," he said.
'THE BEST TIME OF MY LIFE'
RUTH Ojo-Tokunboh (pictured, left), 23, had always been considered a handful. She was expelled from three schools and left with few qualifications. She had a violent temper and frequently harmed herself.
Two years ago, she signed up for Active8. Last October, she returned from Uganda where she spent six months as a teaching assistant in a special school near Kampala.
She has collected a string of awards including her Duke of Edinburgh gold and her bronze medallion for life-saving.
"Today, I'm a better person," she said. "I have developed patience and can take charge of group discussions. My confidence is much stronger. But controlling my temper was my biggest challenge.
"I edit the Active8 newsletter which I started. In 2001, I went to Namibia for 10 weeks with Operation Rayleigh. I've never worked so hard in my life.
I spent two weeks on the Waterberg Plateau renovating a viewing hide in a safari park. It was the best time of my life.
"When we got back to England I straight away signed up for VSO because I knew this was what I wanted to do.
"For the first time, I realised there was more to life than Hull."