With a mix of determination, imagination and sheer bloody-mindedness, young people throughout the UK are getting up and doing things for themselves. The Whitbread Young Achievers awards, taking place in London next week, will reward their efforts. Steven Hastings meets six of the finalists
What do the finalists of the first Whitbread Young Achievers award have in common? Innovation, inspiration and, above all, determination. Shortlisted from more than 500 nominees, these young achievers are not professional sports stars or business whizz kids, but volunteers who have made a difference to the lives of those around them.
From the shortlist of 12 finalists aged between 16 and 22, the judges will choose a winner in each of three categories - sport, community and the environment. At a ceremony in London on June 11, the winners will each receive pound;2,500 to spend as they choose, but unlike most award presentations, it's not all over with the thank you speeches. The winners will also receive a year's support in the form of funding, employment or training opportunities. In this way the Whitbread Awards hope to sustain the work the winners have been doing in their schools and communities and take the projects to another level.
For 20 years, the company has run Volunteer Action awards for all ages, but this year has replaced the scheme, with a tighter focus on young people.
"We've come across some extraordinary stories," says Whitbread's community investment director, Gerry Marsden. "It's been incredibly uplifting to find so many young people who are prepared to go the extra mile. We want to build on that passion and commitment."
Paul Corfield, 16, Bradford, West Yorkshire
Most teenagers having a tough time at school find an outlet for their frustrations. For some, it's sport or music. For others, it's drugs or alcohol. For Paul Corfield, it was chicken breeding.
Paul started working at Bradford city farm as part of a deal he struck with his teachers at Buttershaw high school. With an attendance rate of under 25 per cent, he was given the chance to work at the farm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as long as he reported for school the rest of the week. His attendance rate rose to more than 90 per cent.
"I didn't like school. I had learning difficulties. Here there were things I could do, projects I could throw myself into - like building the incubator." And from the moment he set up a 24-hour vigil to watch the first chicks hatch, he was hooked.
Since he left school last summer, Paul has been at the farm five days a week, working towards an NVQ but, more importantly, working to ensure the farm's survival. Where once there were seven paid staff members, now, because of funding cuts, there are two. By giving tours to visitors, building new facilities and looking after the animals, Paul has helped offset the shortage.
His chicken breeding programme has saved the farm the expense of having to buy new chickens, and raised much-needed income through the sale of eggs.
And this summer he will be taking some of the farm's white-faced woodland sheep to the Royal Norfolk Show. It will be the first time the farm has shown any of its rare breeds. "More people will hear about the farm," explains Paul. "And that might mean more money coming in."
Paul's enthusiasm has also helped protect important local habitats. He has learned dry-stone walling techniques, and worked with his local countryside manager to save a family of badgers. "The rail company was reinforcing an embankment," explains Paul. "They told us if we didn't have the badgers out by a certain date, they'd go ahead anyway."
Paul built new badger setts then persuaded the badgers to vacate their old home and settle in down the road. He put netting over the old setts, which let the badgers out but not in, and put food in the new sets to tempt them in. With days to spare, the move was made and the badgers were saved.
Buttershaw high has newspaper clippings of Paul's achievements posted on its notice board. "I've probably surprised one or two people," he says modestly, "but, really, it's just nice to be able to make a difference."
Adam Hyland, 18, Poole, Dorset
When the doctor who first treated Adam Hyland's cerebral palsy was explaining the implications of his condition to his parents, he told Adam's father, Alan, that he could forget about ever kicking a ball around the garden with his son. "He might be able to walk one day - if he's lucky," was the doctor's prognosis.
But by the age of six, Adam was walking, and a few years after that he was kicking a ball around the garden with his dad. Even so, when he first started to attend Victoria special school for children with physical disabilities, he was told he wouldn't be able to participate in school sports. Two years later, Adam established his own football team at the school. He organised fixtures, acted as manager and played. And he's been playing ever since. "You could say the doctor got it wrong," he laughs.
After leaving school, Adam found there were no opportunities locally for young people with disabilities to play football. So he founded the Poole Physically Challenged Football Team for young people with mixed disabilities, open to boys and girls. When his bid for lottery funding was turned down he got on the phone demanding to know why - and the board overturned its decision. He employed a coach to get the team into shape and secured sponsorship to buy new kit. "Very important that," says Adam. "You get a special feeling when you pull on a football shirt."
But Adam hasn't lost touch with his school. Victoria now has three squads of players that Adam helps coach. "It's typical of him to want to put something back into school," says Victoria's PE teacher, Val Ford. "Adam has amazing leadership qualities and he's an inspiration to all the children here."
His next ambition is to establish a regional football league for people with disabilities. "There's a lot of organising to be done, and it might take a year or two to get started. But football is such a great sport, and being part of a team is so exciting, that I want it to happen. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Lots of people say that - but it's true."
Kirsty Fowler, 17, Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire
"It's like being stuck in a black hole with no way out," says Kirsty Fowler, trying to describe the impact that five years of continual bullying had on her life. "You feel suicidal at times, and there comes a point when you can't cope any longer. I was lucky that when that moment arrived I found the strength to seek help."
That was one turning point in Kirsty's life. Working with counsellors and therapists from a health trust called Spectrum, she slowly regained her confidence. "I started to laugh again, and I started to make friends."
The second turning point came a few months later, when Kirsty was crossing the playground and saw another child being bullied. "In that instant, I knew I had to share everything I had learned. I hated the idea that other people were feeling the same way I used to feel."
Drawing on her experiences, and working with the professionals who had been so much help to her, Kirsty designed her own self-help programme for victims of bullying. The six three-hour sessions involve relaxation techniques, yoga, laughter workshops and even Native American crafts. "The focus isn't on stopping the bullying," she explains. "The bullies won't change; you have to change yourself. The aim is to get to a point where it doesn't affect you, where you think, 'well, so what?'"
Kirsty was determined the programme would be free - "Why should being bullied cost you money?" - and, like many of the other Whitbread nominees, she had the resourcefulness to secure funding. Since then, she has helped dozens of young people - and some adults - who have come to her through Tactic, a youth centre in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire. Her next ambition is to deliver the programme directly to schools, but this has proved difficult. "I wrote 250 letters, mostly to schools in Bedfordshire, and I didn't get one reply," she says. "A lot of them still won't admit that bullying goes on."
But she won't be giving up the fight. The work often brings back Kirsty's own bad memories, but that only makes her more determined to help others.
"Every piece of publicity, every newspaper cutting, every radio interview lets people know there is help. When you're bullied you feel your personal power has been taken from you, but it never goes away completely. You just need to find it again."
Emma Scott, 20, Wigton, Cumbria
"It's not like the cuddly Rolf Harris nonsense you see on television," reflects Emma. "These are wild animals, not domesticated ones. You get bitten, scratched, kicked, puked on, crapped on - on a daily basis." Is it fun? "It's the most fun in the world - I can't imagine doing anything else."
Emma was born into the job at Knoxwood. She grew up learning to care for the hundreds of injured animals that come into the wildlife rescue centre established by her father, George, in 1982. Emma and her team of eight volunteers look after the animals until they are well enough to be released back into the wild - and when that's not possible, they offer the creatures a "retirement home" at Knoxwood.
Emma explains that many of the animals arrive at Knoxwood because people have been careless or cold-hearted. She treats owls hit by cars, swans tangled in discarded fishing line, fox cubs dug out by the local hunt, as well as more exotic animals - iguanas and raccoons, bought as pets and later abandoned.
Which is why Emma wants to see more than just bandaged paws and mended wings. "I set up Knoxwood simply as a place where we could help animals," explains George. "But with Emma's vision and determination, it has become much more. It's a centre of education, a place that can change people's attitudes."
Emma's first step was to establish a website explaining how to help injured wildlife. It offers advice on everything from what to feed a hurt squirrel (goat's milk and raisins) to the best way to remove road tar from a hedgehog (use margarine). "We all come across injured birds or animals," says Emma, "but most people don't know what to do. The website carries basic information that could save an animal's life."
Although Emma is largely self-taught, she sees the advantages of more structured learning. So she has decided to tackle a new challenge - writing an NVQ in wildlife care.
"There are NVQs for people caring for pets," she explains, "so why not for wild animals?" Receiving support from the University of Central Lancashire, Emma hopes it will be validated later this year. "The more people who are trained, the more wildlife we can help."
Afrasiab Anwar, 23, Burnley, Lancashire
Last summer, Afrasiab Anwar began volunteering as an assistant on a football project that provided professional coaching for children in the Daneshouse area of Burnley.
Two months later, the Sure Start funding expired, and despite promises to the contrary, was not renewed. Project organisers went back to their offices, the coaches disappeared back to Burnley FC. But Afrasiab couldn't disappear - born and bred in Daneshouse, he lives in the heart of the community.
"Kids came knocking every night," he explains, "asking why there was no more training." So Afrasiab set up his own coaching sessions. "There's a lot of apathy among young Asians here. They think, 'No one's doing anything for us, so why should we do anything for ourselves?' I wanted to show people what you can achieve if you take the initiative."
The early days were chaotic - driving round to friends' houses to scrape together enough footballs and struggling to find indoor facilities, most of which had been block-booked by clubs. "Even my family told me I was mad," he laughs. But a handful of boys began turning up and Afrasiab charged them pound;1 a session. It didn't come close to covering costs, so he made up the difference out of his own pocket.
Now there is coaching almost every night of the week, involving more than 80 youngsters across three age groups from six to 17. Afrasiab has attracted local sponsorship and some funding from the national lottery, but most children still pay their pound - generating enough spare cash for occasional trips to watch Burnley FC.
Among the new recruits are increasing numbers from other parts of town who've been attracted by the friendly atmosphere and the quality of the coaching. Many of them are white.
"This is a predominantly Asian area, so people assumed we were doing this just for the Asian community. But we've made a special effort to make white children welcome. We're showing that sport breaks down barriers."
Afrasiab has recruited other local volunteers, who are encouraged to gain level 1 coaching awards. The emphasis is on technique, discipline, teamwork and healthy living. "When I was a lad," he explains, sounding like an old-timer rather than a 23-year-old fresh out of university, "football meant a kick around while dodging cars and swigging fizzy drinks. I want these kids to feel they're getting something different. I want to give them a real opportunity."
Louise Ng, 18, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London borough of Barnet
When Louise Ng suggested her school, King Alfred, in the London borough of Barnet, adopt a green energy policy while she raised funding for 12 square metres of solar panelling, she met some scepticism. "Lots of pupils come up with good ideas, but weren't able to turn them into reality," says Joan Morris, King Alfred's head of geography. "Louise didn't fall into that category - her determination was ferocious."
The pound;10,000 panels have yet to go up - Louise's latest battle is to win planning consent - but when they do, King Alfred will become one of few schools in the UK to use solar power. Although the panels can't generate enough wattage to power the whole school, they will power one building and, at times of maximum sunlight and during school holidays, will feed electricity into the national grid, for which King Alfred will be paid.
"It's the symbolic significance that's important," insists Louise. "It will show people that it's not impossible. Schools are about the future, so they should lead the way in using alternative energy sources." She wants the panels to be a visible talking point, not hidden away - hence the delicate planning situation.
The idea came after a visit from Envision. Co-founded by a former King Alfred pupil, the organisation encourages schools to set up "green teams" to promote environmental schemes. Louise latched on to the idea of promoting renewable energy. And she worked hard to overcome ignorance - particularly the perception that solar power couldn't succeed in overcast north London. But a small working model that just about illuminated a single light bulb convinced the doubters, and two equal grants - from Scottish Power and the Department of Trade and Industry - hit the funding target. "The Government will meet half the cost of converting to renewable energy," explains Louise. "But hardly anyone knows this."
She has also been raising her own funds, by selling fair-trade products and organising events including a forum on globalisation. This money will be used to wire up the sun station to computers and make it an "interactive learning resource centre" for local children.
Louise says: "The educational element is the most important part. Without that it's just a novelty. But if you can educate young people about the benefits of renewable energy, you can change the future."
Nomination forms for next year's awards, and other information are available at www.whitbreadyoungachievers.co.uk. Events have been taking place throughout the UK this week as part of Volunteers' Week, a national celebration of the work of volunteers, which ends tomorrow. For more details: www.volunteersweek.org.uk; www.volunteering.org.uk