'Respect works both ways doesn't it?'

7th February 1997 at 00:00
The Liverpool drop-in centre is a group of rooms, best described as "homely", over a shop. Going up the stairs you have to pass under a painted archway - "The Buffer Zone," as Paul Oginsky describes it. "On the way in they touch it and say '100 per cent!' If they get downcast we send them down to touch it again."

Upstairs is a group of young people with differing lengths of experience of Weston Spirit. Vicky Morris and Kellie O'Brien, both 16, have just finished their "resi". Dean Cunningham, 19, has finished the whole year of membership. Tony Smith, now 25, was a member whenhe was 17.

What is most striking is the way they home in not so much on what they do but on how they are treated, by both adults and peers, and on the contrast with school. "The other girls are not bitchy here like they are in school," says Kellie - and Vicky agrees. "At school, girls snarl at you. Here everybody's nice and smiling."

The reason for this, says Tony, lies in honesty and openness. "There's nothing that can't be discussed. You can say, 'I really don't like the names you're calling me' - that never goes on in school, where you can't grass on someone. "

For Tony, bullied at school, Weston Spirit has been a life-changing experience, starting with the residential. "As it went on I realised that I could give my opinions and people didn't laugh at me. Then on the year's membership I started to be myself and make friends - I started to tell jokes, and people laughed at them instead of laughing at me."

Tony found a full-time job, but left it when he realised that his future lay with young people. He now works as a Weston Spirit volunteer while studying for a degree in youth work. Dean, by contrast, "quite liked school, but I lost interest - I was a bad boy I suppose."

A thoroughly engaging, quick-witted character, Dean has clearly been given pause for thought by his Weston Spirit experience. "I was treated more as an adult. Respect works both ways doesn't it?" He went on the residential "for a laugh", and his fondest memory is of "sitting in a freezing stream tipping water out of my boots. It was dead hard and I was knackered."

He's enjoyed the membership programme since - one of the highlights has been helping at the local police training college where he and fellow members were recruited to play the part of suspicious characters, trying car doors and verbally standing up to police challenges. They mixed socially with police cadets afterwards.

"It's all made me much more tolerant to other people's opinions," says Dean, "And I've learned such a lot - that the lakes in Wales are very cold, for example!"

He is now looking for a job, or for training. He had hopes to be on a Raleigh expedition and was accepted - "but you have to raise some of your own funding, and I just couldn't do it.

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