Karen Gold visits a volunteering project which proves students with special needs have as much to offer as anyone else
Once every week, instead of going to school or college, Emily Beevers entertains small children in the sandpit, while Louise Darling checks price tags and polishes china and glass. Billy Dowling de-seeds marigolds, John Hughes coaches a football team, and James Davis grooms horses and shovels manure.
All of these 17 and 18-year-olds have learning difficulties, many also have additional needs: physical disabilities or mental health problems. All attend special schools or supported learning streams in further education colleges. And all of them, thanks to a remarkable volunteering scheme based in Doncaster, are carving out an unexpected niche for themselves in the workplace.
Millennium Volunteers was a national project initiated in 1998 to reinvigorate the social consciences of 16 to 24-year-olds. If they volunteered for 50, 100 or 200 hours over a year they would receive certificates signed by education ministers in ascending seniority, plus a warm feeling inside and something to put on their CV.
It was not obvious how young people with special needs fitted into this plan, apart from being allowed two years rather than one to complete their volunteering hours. But in Doncaster in 1999, under the regional auspices of Community Service Volunteers, an experimental project focused on recruiting only volunteers with special needs.
To be fair to sceptics, volunteering was not an obvious prospect even to the young people or their families. Project co-ordinator Diane Cadman says : "Initially it was very difficult to recruit volunteers. People didn't come forward, because young people with additional needs and their parents and carers don't naturally think in terms of what they can offer to other people."
To persuade them, she gave talks to staff and students in special and mainstream schools, and contacted social services and disability agencies, arguing that their pupils and clients had just as much volunteering potential as anyone else. Gradually three special schools in particular - Fernbank, Sandall Wood and Cedar - plus Doncaster College and then other agencies, began to refer young people to MV.
Take Louise Darling, 18, shy, tentative, doing an ASDAN Youth Award and Life Skills at Fernbank school ("I can read a little bit but not a lot").
The Scope charity shop in the centre of Doncaster agreed to take her, but for her first four afternoons there, Diane Cadman had to stay and reassure her that she could cope. Today, she chats to manager June Steers, sorts donated items, tidies up behind customers, polishes fragile items, packs and smiles: "Now she does things on her own initiative" says June. "She's working for NVQ level 1, but I think one day she will have the confidence to go on the till, which would bring her into level 2 and give her the chance of a job in retail."
Diane and the project's two support workers continue to visit Louise at work, pop into school, and phone her parents or June: "If Louise had a bad day, June would ring me up and say 'I think there's something wrong, she's not herself' and we would step in."
Some students need more support. Emily Beevers, 17, has severe and unpredictable epilepsy. She also has a lifelong ambition to work with children. MV found a school - Intake Primary - willing to allow Emily to work in the nursery class, provided she was accompanied by a full-time support worker. Emily plays, talks, reads, listens: Intake's three-year-olds rush to show her their latest discovery with obvious affection.
Parents were told about her seizures, and she has had one at the nursery.
She came round in the designated recovery room, which that term was decorated as a giant's castle: "I was very worried I might have hurt a child, but they were very calm. One of them said: 'I think Emily likes it in the giant's castle'."
Emily's is no fairytale experience: once her 200 MV hours are up, her support worker funding ends, and with it her placement. But she is left with a full risk assessment (carried out by MV, available to any future employer) and a track record: "I'd love to go to college and work with children, but my epilepsy is in the way."
In fact, only about a dozen of Doncaster's 115 MVs in the past 12 months have gone from a placement directly into work, though many more have gained workplace skills - communication, confidence, team-working - and a career goal. ("I know I want a full-time job as a gardener," says Billy Dowling, 19, two weeks into a conservation project in a Victorian walled garden.) But even without a career trajectory, their horizons are widened, says Jill Chiddey, 16 to 19 co-ordinator at Sandall Wood: "We try to get away from the idea that paid work is the only option for your life; we want them to realise that voluntary work is valuable in itself. And it gives them a sense of freedom. They travel by taxi; then they realise they can use taxis for their social life, and their world opens up."
Many mainstream young people drop out of volunteering, says Diane Cadman:
"They find something else to do, they move on." More than 95 per cent of her volunteers stay the 200 hours - and many carry on beyond. That may be partly why, where initially she struggled to find placements, now "we have people ringing up saying have we got anyone to spare".
Young people are placed in libraries, running a community cafe, doing administration and IT for charities, working in animal welfare. But ultimately their biggest impact may be on sport. With coaching support from Doncaster Rovers, earlier this year a group of MVs started a disability football club after being cold-shouldered by mainstream amateur clubs in the city. Now the city's sport and leisure committee has asked them to investigate all disability sports facilities, with a view to increasing access and starting up similar clubs in other sports.
Two members of the original club, twins Neil and John Hughes, 18, are learning to lead coaching sessions with support from Doncaster Rovers'
community manager, Eric Randerson. "Please give Neil and John the respect they deserve," he tells club members, before handing over the evening's warm-up to the brothers, former special school pupils and now doing sports courses at Doncaster College: "When Diane asked me to come and help here I wouldn't have expected there to be coaching potential," he explains. "I'd like to think John and Neil could get a level 2 coaching qualification. I'm very confident they could be in charge of junior league school teams."
For the twins this is still a spare-time activity but, for James Davis, volunteering with Riding for the Disabled is virtually a full-time occupation. Four days each week, he arrives at the Northern Racing school, ready to catch and groom horses, lead their riders and clean out stables.
Long past his 200 hours volunteering, he will soon qualify for the RDA's assistant certificate, recognised countrywide. It is, he himself acknowledges, a transformation: "I was stuck at home 247 after college wouldn't let me in because of my anger. I want to work more with horses. I have to run at the side of them when they are trotting, but I never get tired. This has made a lot of difference to me. It makes me feel as though I am doing something useful."
Doncaster Millennium Volunteers Tel: 01302 366199 www.mvonlinegov