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I’ve been involved in youth clubs and youth work for over ten years. I’m sure other youth workers can relate, but I often forget about the massively impactful moments you have with young people, as seeing it day in and day out normalises it. That five-minute chat you had over a game of pool could have changed that young person’s life. It likely won’t happen instantly, it could be months or years, but with every conversation, you’re making a difference.
I started going to a youth club when I was nine. Every Thursday night, around 30 kids and I would go to the local church for an hour and a half. I started volunteering with the younger members and those with additional needs at 13 to develop my youth work skills, and by year 11, I was organising activities, so there was something more to do than playing pool or watching a film. When I was old enough, I took on the role of a youth worker, joining Warrington Youth Zone when it opened as the Senior Youth Work Manager.
Every young person has challenges, and most need an escape in some way – for me, it was that local church youth club. But with it being only an hour and a half – you’d blink, and it would be gone. Young people need access to that universal youth work provision several hours a day, every day of the week. More than likely, they won’t come every day, but knowing they have a safe space to go whenever they want to is invaluable.
I’m a big believer that everyone is equally intelligent; it just manifests in different ways. Schools do a fantastic job, but not every young person is academic. Some are academically intelligent, others emotionally or artistically. Some people can recite times tables from the top of their heads, and others are good at rugby. There are so many things you can’t grade. Many young people don’t realise how smart and special they are until they attend somewhere like a Youth Zone where their talents shine. The role of a youth worker is help young people find what they’re good at and allow them to explore and develop those skills.
The activities unlock those trusted relationships, as what youth workers do is so much more than getting young people involved in new things. For example, playing football isn’t just about learning how to kick a ball in a straight line. It’s about physical fitness, the positive mental health. It’s supporting young people to improve in multiple areas to help them develop the skills they’ll need in later life.
Over the last three years, I’ve been involved in a lot of street-based youth work, which is a hugely underestimated part of the profession. Some young people will never come into a youth centre, and that’s ok. But often, those young people would benefit most from a youth worker’s support.
With street outreach, you meet that young person on their terms, in their patch. You don’t have the same tools and carrots to dangle you have at a youth centre. All you have are the fundamentals of youth work; building trusted relationships with young people takes time. Young people come to see you’re not a teacher they don’t get on with, or a social worker who’s gotten involved with something at home. You’re someone who can relate to them, who maybe comes from their area or who’s experienced the same challenges they’ve faced, all whilst using your youth work skills to help.
At Warrington, we’re finding the levels of young people suffering from anxiety and depression have exploded since lockdown. The cost of living is also hugely impacting them. Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard too many children concerned about it, 12-year-olds worrying that they shouldn’t have a hot shower because it’ll cost 12p and that money needs to be saved to cook a hot meal. The need for youth workers and safe and affordable spaces has never been greater. Young people may come through the doors because of the fantastic building, but what keeps them returning after three months is the support they receive and the relationships they’ve built; with new friends, with youth workers, and even relationships with the gym, having built healthy habits.
The values and fundamentals of the youth worker role are the same today as when I first went to that church youth club over a decade ago. I may not be able to pinpoint that one defining moment that put me on the course to where I am today, but there were many conversations over the years that gathered momentum like a snowball leading me to a career in youth work, something I’m incredibly passionate about.
So, when people ask me “what do youth workers do?”, the short answer is we help young people. By talking about my experiences above, I hope I can make someone else see the positives of a career in youth work so they can start their own journey to become a youth worker.
Kyle Chidlaw, Senior Youth Work Manager at Warrington Youth Zone
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