Teenagers who teamed up to fight deprivation are gaining qualifications, reports Michael Prestage .
When Maria Smith gives a presentation on homelessness she knows what she is talking about. The 18-year-old has been there, done it and bought the T-shirt - in her case promoting the Peer Project, for which she is a volunteer.
The project is the brainchild of 15 teenagers from the Newcastle West Career Club, in one of the most deprived areas of the city.
They believed they could use their own experiences to provide advice and support on social problems to other young people. They give guidance on training, education, jobs and social issues.
The project advisers benefit not only from greater confidence and self-esteem, but also from being trained in counselling skills.
Tyneside Training and Enterprise Council, which funds the project, hopes to build on the work by offering appropriate vocational qualfications to advisers.
Peer Project advisers run workshops and training sessions. David Devine, 17, left home because of family problems. "Teenagers are more likely to listen to people of their own age group," he said. "It's too early to see long-term results, but the response is very positive and we feel we are helping people."
David Devine also thinks the project has improved his confidence. "Before I got involved in the project I used to be a real individual and wanted to do my own thing. Now I can work much better in a team."
Marie Trotter, 17, is delighted that the project is one of 10 successful bids out of 58 submitted to the Department for Education and Employment for funding. It will enable the young people to extend their work into schools.
She said: "Many young people's problems start at school and could be prevented if they were tackled in the right way. I get a real buzz from helping other teenagers through the Peer Project. I really believe it can make a big difference to a lot of young people."
There are plans for similar projects elsewhere in Newcastle and the project has been visited by people from other cities.
Maria Smith added: "I think there are a lot of people out there who need the help and advice we give. They will listen to what we have to say because we are the same as them."
Olivia Grant, the TEC's chief executive, said disaffection was particularly prevalent on Tyneside. Nationally, 14 per cent of school-leavers fail to progress into training, further education or employment, but that figure was 19 per cent on Tyneside.
"This represents a waste of talent, resources and skills. The career clubs and Peer Project are among a number of initiatives supported by the TEC which aim to work with young people who are at risk of becoming disaffected."
Debbie Roddam, career club co-ordinator in Tyneside, said the idea for the Peer Project was floated in January. "They drew up the draft project and raised the funding from the TEC themselves. It was their philosophy on how the scheme should run. They were astounded by the fact that somebody would invest in them."
Workshops are based on four areas: drug and alcohol misuse, homelessness and independent living, truancy and peer pressure, and sex education. The project also runs a weekly drop-in centre.
Debbie Roddam said: "I think the project will be expanded but it is very much down to the young people. They want it to be a national initiative. If they are prepared to put in the effort we should support them."