As part of our ‘Spotlight on…’ series for Youth Work Week, Lydia in NYA’s Policy team interviewed Darren from Walton Youth and Community Project, based in Liverpool.

Lydia: Could you tell me what Walton youth and Community project does?

Darren: I’m Darren and I’m the Youth and Community Manager at Walton Youth and Community Project. We’re a registered charity and we’ve been around since the 60s. We deliver youth clubs, detached youth work, community events, outreach work, residentials, supper clubs, targeted support programmes and we support the local FareShare food bank. We provide holiday programmes through the school holidays putting on activities to engage young people and provide them with food. We use our mobile unit ‘The Base’ bus for our detached and outreach work.

We’re about engaging young people and families to offer support and give them opportunities through youth work to change their lives for the better. 

Lydia: Did you always want to be youth worker?

Darren: I think I didn’t know about youth work, when I was younger. When I was in school and I was the person who was in the middle groups for behaviour – I wasn’t in the bad crowd, but also not in the good crowd. I was somewhere in the middle and I always got caught.

I first encountered youth work when two youth workers came into my school inviting young people to get involved with volunteering at the National Trust whilst at school The aim was to get young people from the inner city into National Trust properties. We also supported community events with the youth workers and went on residentials.

Then when I was 16, I was given the opportunity to sail with school from New Zealand to Australia. We had to fundraise to be able to go and I got a lot of support from youth workers to raise the money. From then I realised my own independence and that I could do things if I really put my mind to it when I could have taken a very different path in life.

It opened by eyes to other opportunities like a career as a youth worker as well as taking part in more outdoor activities such as canoeing, kayaking, rock climbing and hill walking. I went and did an outdoor activities programme in Newcastle College and attended a leadership in the community programme in the Lake District.

When I moved to Liverpool to do youth work and community work, I’ve always thought, it’s about making opportunities for people and showing there’s a bigger world rather than just sitting in your little silo. I think that’s why I support people out of their comfort zone to develop them. However, as youth workers we know that the impact isn’t instant, it’s long term, we see that change and it makes you feel proud. I’m not sure if any other profession does that.

Lydia: How does the youth work you deliver support the young people you work with?

Darren: Open access youth work gives young people the opportunity to access our safe spaces, activities and us, as trusted adults, in the evenings in their time. I believe in ‘grow your own’, in terms of young people moving through the ranks of engaging, participating, leading and potentially volunteering with us.

There’s a young person who has been involved with us since they were four. They’re part of our family projects and sport projects. They’ve volunteered for us through youth clubs, through lockdowns and were instrumental to our food project with Fareshare making sure families in need were fed. They really took ownership of the project.

Lydia: What element of your role makes you get up in the morning?

Darren: On a cold winter rainy wet morning with no heating on it’s quite hard to get up, but knowing that the day’s not going to be the same as yesterday and that when you meet the kids in the centre or out on activities, you get to see their happy faces whilst engaging with our activities makes it all worthwhile.

It’s the fact that we’ve got the third generation of parents saying to their kids, “You better behave, Darren used to be my youth worker”.  I’m seeing all of those generations of kids turn into positive citizens in society and encouraging their kids to join our clubs. Its fulfilling being able to change their lives through opportunity.

We’re not a statutory service so young people choose to come to us and work with us and they can walk away at any time. We know from parents now bringing their children us, that those positive experiences stick with them for life. I think that’s what keeps me going – the difference we make.

We had a session on Wednesday where two different types of young people were talking with each other when they would never normally ever talk to each other. I think youth work brings about that connectivity, it’s just amazing. When would these two different young people who have different interests and have been brought up differently have been brought together in a voluntary way. They’re now building a positive relationship with each other through our spaces and that’s amazing. What other profession can manage that?

Lydia: Are there any myths or misconceptions about youth work you’d like to dispel?

Darren: Some young people who aren’t used to youth work believe that we’re police, especially when we’re on detached work. There’s also a misconception that we sit around and just play pool all night.

However, saying that, I do believe pool tables or something similar are key to building relationships, connections and communicating with young people. We’re talking more about issue-based topics with young people rather than just providing ‘fun’ activities, I think we’ve grown and developed as a sector in this work.

I think our youth work profession isn’t recognised as it should be. I was at the Liverpool Hope University this week talking to some social work students and they had no knowledge of the role of youth work.

We sometimes get the same expressions and comments in child protections meetings and from qualified social workers. We’re in that unique position where we’re not a statutory service, which is where we get our successes from, but it can sometimes make multi-agency working harder. We work with some social workers who are great, but unfortunately with the high turnover of social workers, it’s lucky we know about the child and what’s going on, as they don’t always have regular support from social services.

As youth workers, we might be the only ones being allowed to enter the house when social workers are refused access. I don’t think people see that further up the chain in local authorities.

Lydia: What challenges do you believe youth workers will encounter in the future?

Darren: The sirens are going off and the tsunami of need is about to crash on to us – once that comes in and crashes on us, it’s going to be hard. I think next year is going to be the hardest year for everybody. The need we’re seeing in terms of food poverty, cost of living and obviously the mental wellbeing needs of young people as well, that’s going to be off the scale.

As an organisation, I think the cost of running is going to be a massive barrier for us to tackle. There’s also staff and recruitment. Everyone thinks we’re a massive team when there’s only three of us, two apprentices on secondments from Liverpool Football Club Foundation, a seconded sessional work from local authority and our volunteers.

We’re finding challenges with bigger organisations coming into the area and delivering work in the same areas as us. There is no consultations with organisation offering the same type of youth work such as Detached. The football premiership league club are delivering work on the same nights, at the same time, but not talking to us or other youth organisations in the area and getting loads of recognition for their work. They’re getting millions of pounds for their work due to their brand and PR, funders want to be associated with that, as a small grassroot youth charity working on the ground and we’re working on tight budgets. We don’t have cost to pay for professional bid writers to fund future work. They want to provide opportunities for young people, but some don’t want to do this collaboratively which can be frustrating when we’ve been delivered youth work for so long in the area.

Resources are already scarce, we should be supporting each other and working together. Partnerships are a challenge, but they have to be transparent and everybody at the table has to know what each other is doing and what they’re getting and how we can work together to change lives for the better.

Lydia: What are your hopes for the future for youth work for sector and young people?

Darren: I hope that in the future we’ll get access to more trained youth workers to build and grow the sector. I hope that with that we can grow in recognition and youth work is seen in a positive spotlight.

I’m really hopeful for the sector, and I think the NYA vision is driving this forward on a national level whilst being able to make change locally. I think the future is very bright for youth work. With the investment in the Level 6 Apprenticeship and the degree being offered at Liverpool Hope University, there are different educational options for people wanting to get into youth work.

I feel like we’re going to be back in the 90s again where everyone wants to be involved in youth work which is exciting.

I also hope that funders will look at more longer term funding so we can invest on our workforce and ensure they have a professional career for decades not years.

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