Through the glass doors of a brand new building – all angles, colour-blocked walls and floor to ceiling windows – the sounds of Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga are streaming through speakers high overhead.
At one end of the UK’s newest youth centre, a climbing wall – so huge you cannot see the top – waits for its first challengers. To its left there’s a cavernous sports hall, newly marked out for more than a dozen games, and across the vast recreation area, where teenagers will soon gather to chat, eat and play pool, is a gym, with row after row of pristine equipment and a door, leading out to a garden behind.
This is a 21st century youth club, in the north of England, where 2,000 children will not only find a safe space to bring them off the streets and out of local parks at night, but a world of activities and opportunities that, for too long, have felt closed off to some of Britain’s most deprived families.
Long a mainstay of communities, youth clubs were once the preserve of church halls, scout huts or school sports halls, a couple of nights a week.
But things have changed since then.
Just last month, a Twitter user posted about how his local youth club in Streatham, south London, offered comfort when a ‘tired, dishevelled and stressed out’ 16-year-old from Eritrea arrived in London, having travelled to the UK in the back of a lorry.
While youth workers sought the best course of action for the teen, efforts were made to make the boy feel safe and comforted while in their care – he was fed the Eritrean dish of injera and sauce, and given the chance to play and socialise with other children his age.
It’s this extra level of support for young people that is currently being introduced through many of today’s generation of youth clubs.
Done right, these spaces can overhaul the life chances of some of the country’s most vulnerable children, including those in care or in unhappy homes, and boosting the confidence, friendships and job opportunities of others.
Many come in the mould of purpose-built Youth Zones – super centres kitted out with state-of-the-art equipment that cost pennies to use and stay open seven-days-a-week.
In Warrington, where the newest Youth Zone from national youth charity, OnSide, opened last week, every door inside the purpose-built centre invites new excitement: a boxing gym complete with ring and pads; podcast, recording and dance studios, spaces for art, pottery, textiles and gardening and a music room with glossy new keyboards, drums and electric guitars just waiting for teenagers to pick them up and play.
Upstairs, there’s a boardroom, kitchen to learn how to cook and a hair and beauty salon. On the roof is an all-weather, floodlit football pitch and there are plans for an outdoor cinema and party space where kids can enjoy nights under the stars, in hammocks.
Throughout the building – this is the 14th in a growing OnSide network that has expanded across the UK over almost 15 years and welcomes 50,000 young people nationwide – seating clusters invite children to hang out and talk. There are no benches for one or solitary sofas here. And a cafe, in the spacious reception space, decorated with graphics incorporating every colour of the rainbow, provides hot meals for £1.
‘If kids can’t afford it, the priority is to make sure they’ve eaten – and to make sure this is a safe space open to them anytime they need,’ explains Dave McNicholl, the centre’s chief executive.
For 13 years, he ran Warrington Youth Club – a local charity of 70 years – out of a small community centre nearby. The new building will allow him to extend activities, mentorship and youth work, under the Warrington Youth Zone banner, to up to 300 children, aged eight to 19 – and those with additional needs up to 25-years-old – every night of the week, offering separate sessions for eight to 12-year-olds and 13-19-year-olds.
As with all OnSide Youth Zones – others are in London, the Midlands and wider North West – youngsters pay £5 annual membership and 50p a visit, where they can stay for up to six hours at the weekend.
With kids estimated to spend 85% of their time outside school, every aspect has been thought through.
OnSide chief executive, Kathryn Morley, explains: ‘The whole building is designed to help young people engage, down to the glass doors and floor to ceiling windows that bring down barriers to taking part, or seating areas that make sure no one is alone. We imagine it from the point of view of a 12-year-old coming in for the first time.’
The walls are adorned with motivational quotes, chosen by the teenagers: the words of Taylor Swift, boxer Anthony Joshua and Olympic swimmer Adam Peaty.
One by author J.R.R. Tolkein, adorning the wall of the multimedia studio, reads: ‘Not all those who wander are lost.’ While another from the singer Yungblud simply says: ‘To be imperfect is to be perfect to me.’
Katie Rankin, 18, had fallen off the rails and was on the verge of entering the care system when Warrington’s youth workers changed her life, aged 12.
‘I wasn’t going to school, I was going missing from home, I was in with the wrong crowd, then I got moved to a behavioural school,’ she explains.
‘If I’d had a building like this earlier, I’d have been safer and on a better path a lot sooner.’
Katie was buddied-up with a girl, three years older, who gave her the confidence to enter the youth club. She remembers: ‘The first time my mum pulled up outside the old centre, I was too terrified to get out of the car. I didn’t know what to expect.
‘Here, everything is set up to bring you inside and show you what’s available, so you don’t feel lost.’
Diagnosed with autism in 2017, the sensory room in the new Youth Zone was important to Katie when the building was being designed with the input of young members like her. ‘That really helps with anxiety for someone like me,’ she explains. ‘Before being part of a youth club, I’d never fit in anywhere. Once I was here I made friends with everyone. It got me back on track.’
Katie is now studying health and social work at college and works as a personal assistant. When she became homeless over Christmas, Youth Zone staff helped her get a roof over her head, too: ‘They helped with all the paperwork and messaged every day over Christmas and New Year to check I was ok. I want other young lives to be changed for the better the way they changed mine.’
Kathryn Morley remembers her own difficult childhood and how a Youth Zone would have provided her with a safe haven. ‘It’s about having somewhere safe to go and something to do,’ she says. ‘I had a traumatic childhood. I wasn’t talking to adults, nobody at school was talking to me and I had all sorts of things going on. Coming somewhere like this to have a good time and have conversations, would have been amazing for me.’
On top of activities staffed by specialist instructors, including personal trainers and music teachers, qualified youth workers are always on hand and offer sessions and individual support with self-esteem, drug and alcohol awareness and relationships.
For 14 to 16-year-olds there is a six week ‘get a job’ programme to help boost confidence and interview skills before they leave school. There are also holiday clubs priced £12-a-day including food – a third of the price of many others, for 8am to 6pm care.
When children are vulnerable or open up about difficult home lives or personal circumstances, staff work with local authority safeguarding leads to help them access support.
Kathryn says: ‘There are young people who, without a Youth Zone, would be in care. When they come here, they’re just another teenager.’
Ellie Griffiths, 17, went to her first seniors night at the youth club, in 2017, aged 12, at the suggestion of teachers at her high school, where she had struggled to meet friends.
‘From that first session, I came every day for years,’ she says. ‘I had a hard time at high school. I didn’t fit in. I loved music, sport and motor cross and other girls didn’t. I was really, really shy. I wouldn’t speak to people or try new things. I struggled with self image but having the support I found at the youth club brought me out of my shell. It gave me a boost I’d never had.’
Ellie, who is now at college, picked up music lessons at the centre, paying just the 50p entrance instead of the £26 cost at school, formed a band with youth club friends and joined the National OnSide Youth Choir on stage at London’s Royal Albert Hall, performing to over 5,000 people.
She has also become a paid sessional staff member, working with eight to 13-year-olds, and is looking to a career in youth work. ‘I’ve seen kids come in dead quiet, like I was, then half way through their first session they’re buzzing,’ she says. ‘You see the change so quickly and see them blossom. It helps me grow too.’
Youth worker Kyle Chidlaw, 23, came through Warrington Youth Club, aged 16, when he signed up to complete the National Citizenship Service (NCS) programme for teenagers with them. ‘I was disengaged at school,’ he remembers, now sat in one of the Youth Zone’s brightly coloured rooms.
‘I wasn’t a bad pupil but I was kicked out of lessons and I wasn’t comfortable with many people or new crowds. Those first four weeks with youth workers flipped my life on its head.’
At 17, Kyle started helping out with school holiday clubs for up to 150 children. He is now a permanent staff member, part of a team of 70 core and sessional workers that keep the centre running. He knows all too well the difference finding somewhere to belong can make to a child’s life.
‘From the age of nine, I went to a church youth club,’ he explains. ‘It was the highlight of my week. It was the place where I could switch off from everything else going on in my life.
‘This building provides so much more than that could. It’s not just some dinner hall at the back of a church with colouring pencils and a fly away football. When I think what a difference that small place made to me once a week, imagine what this, with all its facilities, can provide to up to 300 kids every night who choose to come here.
‘It’s not forced, it’s not school, it’s voluntary and on their terms. It’s the relationships they build with peers and youth workers here, even the equipment, that keeps them coming back. A Youth Zone is something to do, somewhere to go, someone to talk to.’
Each centre runs as an independent charity and is funded by founder partners – up to 40 individuals and business investors who want to give back to their local community. Money is also put up by local authorities who sit on the respective boards.
The Warrington Youth Zone cost £3.5m to build and the same again to kit out and will cost £1.2m a year to run, mostly on staffing. Young people foot less than 5% of running costs.
Dave explains: ‘That 50p is really important. Partly it helps us run the charities but also younger people are buying into the Youth Zone. It gives them a stake in what we’re providing.’
‘Schools play an incredible role in young people’s development but they can’t do everything,’ adds Kathryn. ‘We had a public health director who said if we had Youth Zones for adults, too, it would solve the NHS crisis.’
OnSide’s ambition is to have a Youth Zone on the doorstep of every child in Britain.
‘These are totally replicable – we can keep going,’ says Kathryn. ‘Each one is a masterpiece in its own right but our vision is for every community to have one of these. We want all young people to benefit from safe, inspiring places.’
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