To follow is Chapter 5 in a series that is my personal tranformative journey from my early years. This story began with me living as a long term unemployed single parent with two children with different fathers, never being married. I was definitely on the bottom rung of society. I lived in the highest unemployed town in the UK with the demise of its Iron and Steel, Chemical and Shipbuilding industries, thus experiencing years of poverty and ostracisation. This is the story of how, supported by a strong Christian faith, I deeply analysed and navigated my way through it all, to an absolutely fulfilling life.
In the light of what’s happening in this chaotic world today, I feel moved to tell my story with all its different facets, because my main hope is that the reader will see the human face of the marginalised. Then, hopefully, gain a more compassionate understanding of all those who live on the margins of society. I hope the reader finds clues on how to make connections with people different from them, or to change the top down competitive economic system so all people are justly valued whether they were in paid work or out of paid work.
I invite the reader to pick any chapter and, if it resonates with you, to organise a zoom working group in the New Republic of the Heart community to discuss and explore any particular issue or let it inform the work you are already doing.
I acknowledge that every single one of us has our own unique experience from our own unique perspective waiting to be heard and learned from. This is simply my experience. I’d love to maybe one day hear and learn from yours.
To read Chapter 4, click HERE.
CHAPTER 5 ~ WORKING WITH YOUNG PEOPLE
In 1994, I was successful in getting a part time PAID job, the first regular paid job I’d had since leaving Australia, fourteen years earlier. The post was with an organisation called ‘Specialised Technical Services.’ My person-centred counselling course stood me in good stead when I worked five mornings a week with unemployed 16-18 year olds.They came from an area near Middlesbrough renowned for its high levels of drugs and crime and three generations of unemployment. Fathers and grandfathers were out of work.
Although I had previously volunteered with a teenage drop in centre for three years, I didn’t have any written qualifications in Youth Work. My interviewers knew this.
Bringing in my Values
I was into my second year of a four year training course to be a (person -centred) counsellor, linking in Gestalt therapy which encouraged being fully present in the moment, and introduced me to observing body language.
I firmly believed that if I entered any relationship with:
- Empathy – getting into the shoes of the other person and reflecting that back to them.
- Congruence – Being REAL with a person and with myself in the present moment.
- Non Judgemental Positive Regard – Liking the person, not necessarily their behavior.
These were the tools needed to give every person self actualising growth. Imagine if politicians and world leaders took these tools seriously!
My job was actually a YT tutor, however I hadn’t realised until it was too late and I had started the job, that the students were forced to come to me to do their basic NVQ on the threat of losing any kind of help. I was shocked because it felt incongruent to my person-centred approach.
At that time in England, 16-18 year olds had no government help with benefits. Universal child allowance stopped when a child reached 16. Government benefits started again at 18 -25 years. Parents (often unemployed parents themselves) with teenagers who weren’t working found it difficult to keep up with their teenagers’ needs. This two year gap without any support for teenagers in this limbo, and with the pressure of family struggles mixed with teenage hormones, led to many of them leaving home, resulting in a rise in teenage homelessness.
At that time the government gave Specialised Technical Services £60 per week for each pupil out of which they were to pay the teenagers £16.80 per week, £25.60 at the age of 18, for attending this 12 week programme. This was all these teenagers had to survive on for food, electricity etc. One 18 year old lived in a council flat and could get his rent paid (which was definitely good), although the flat had very little furniture and bare floor boards. Some of the 16-18 year olds were surviving sleeping on floors of different mates houses. One lived in a children’s home. The remainder of the £60 per person given to ‘Specialised Technical Services’ paid for training.
After fire drills and safety issues, I was put in a room about 12ft by 16ft with one large table and five deeply resentful teenagers. Strewn across the table were rolls of red and green crepe paper and I was told to make paper poppies with them! Think Daniel in the Lion’s Den and bear in mind this was my first paid job in many years!
It was a blessing to have to ride three buses for me to get to work every weekday morning, because I used that precious time to have a little word with the man (?) upstairs, before I was thrown to the lions. (smile)
With no resources, they rebelled.
They gave me a lot of flack, testing me out, telling me in graphic language how to ‘twok’ cars, where to get ‘brown’ or ‘whiz’. I realised just how much I had been oblivious of teenage issues until that point. I instantly knew why the glue was locked away in the manager’s cupboard. A whole new world of teenage survival opened up to me. They often refused to communicate with each other. (G) was deep in debt, addicted to fruit machines. A few of them didn’t eat much because they couldn’t afford the electricity to cook, and ‘take away’ food was expensive. I tried to teach budgeting skills, but (S) said that no way would he ever tell me how he spent his £16.50, because he would be shot off the course. On one occasion, I naively asked them to “dream dreams.” (S) literally put his head on the table and went to sleep until lunch time, and they all followed suit.
It was a nightmare. I was told by the organisation that it didn’t matter as long as I kept them occupied till lunch. I resented the organisation for not getting a professional Youth Worker, because I felt the youth deserved this. I presumed that I and the other afternoon part time worker were as far as their funding could go. However there was something special about each one of these teenagers that I felt was worth sticking with. Then…an unexpected breakthrough.
To teach them how to read a bus timetable for their NVQ, the organisation gave me a scratty piece of a faded photo copy of a bus time table to use. I suggested we go on a bus journey as part of the lesson. The manager agreed and provided the funds. The teenagers chose to go to the local seaside, Saltburn. They had to read the timetable to get us on the right bus, and pay the fares with the correct change to get us there. My task was to organise the bus back to the centre.
In Saltburn, we went to the local library to look for things to do that might interest them when we returned. Some wanted to search the beach for pebbles or shells to paint, enjoying a splodge in the sea while doing it. Then it was time for me to get them back to the centre.
Riding the bus on the way back to the centre surrounded by 5 ‘loud’ teenagers, I seemed to be a curiosity to a passenger who sat on the opposite aisle from me. I tried to explain to her that I was trying to teach them how to read a bus time table. I kept getting interrupted by (B) who sat near the window next to me.
Me: “I’m trying to” …
(B) “Excuse me, Linda”…
Me: Just a minute (B)…
(B) …”But Linda” …
Me: “(B), I’m talking” …(turning to the passenger), “I’m trying to teach……..”
(B) “Excuse me Linda” ….
Me: ”Just a minute I’m talking” ….
(B) “Yes, but Linda, are we supposed to be in the middle of the Yorkshire Moors?!”
I had put us all on the WRONG BUS! (It was the right number, but a different route.) We didn’t have a penny between us to get home and I had to beg the bus driver to give our bus fare back to get home from the middle of nowhere.
The teenagers were all in kinks of laughter. I must admit that when we got off the bus and away from the bus driver, so was I. This laughter was the catalyst for them all opening up to me. I was REAL…I made mistakes. I definitely wasn’t perfect! This was talked about with laughter for some time afterwards.
Note: I have since realised that due to my lack of experience, in the future I would never again tell strangers on a bus that I was teaching teenagers to read a bus time table as this could really have embarrassed the teenagers.
This experience for me emphasised Carl Rogers’ teaching, namely that Congruence, being REAL with a person and being REAL with oneself, brought good results whatever the situation.
I think I half expected the sack when a little cloud started to hover over me as it slowly dawned on me that I would have to explain all this to the manager.
However, when I sheepishly checked in with the manager in her office to confess why we were so late getting back from Saltburn, I’d inadvertently interrupted her while she was in the process of interviewing a young teenager who had problems of depression and low self esteem. The teen was bewailing the fact she could never get anything right and was always making mistakes. This was the perfect moment! The manager pointed her to me, “See,” the manager said to her. “Even tutors make mistakes!” The young teenager smiled from underneath her bowed head and nodded. She settled into her new placement, relaxed in knowing tutors made mistakes too. I was not only let off the hook, I felt a virtual hero ! (smile),
Developing a Support Structure
I didn’t want to lose this momentum. If I was to do justice to these teenagers, for their sake and mine, I needed support. Unable to get support from work, I arranged my own support group for the teenagers outside the job with friends who were qualified Youth Workers.
While the teens had visited Saltburn Library, they found resources on different local places they would like to visit. One leaflet they picked up was about OK 4, an advice and drop in centre for 16-25 year olds that was situated in Redcar, a short bus ride from work. My friend Jill happened to be the manager. It had a coffee bar, kitchen and billiard room.
Every Tuesday OK4 invites different people to teach teenagers about cheap but nutritious meals. Realising that budgeting skills was a very important issue, with the managers permission, I took the group to OK4 every Tuesday.
Eventually, after calculating the cost of the ingredients and organising the shopping, the students cooked meals for each other. This went toward their NVQ and they had fun doing it. Everybody pooled 50p to get the ingredients for a good nutritional meal. The more people shared, the better the meal. There was a significant lesson learned in this.
Any teenager could go to OK4 anytime to cook their own food, thus saving on their own gas and electricity bills, and expensive ‘takeaways’. None had a freezer at home to buy frozen food in bulk. Tuesdays became a regular highlight of their week.
OK4 was a non-compulsory, non-profit charitable organisation. People were free to come and go. I could feel less tension in myself and the difference in motivation with the teenagers when they were not in an atmosphere of compulsion. Thinking back to the paper poppies, we were now doing something that was very relevant for them.
To encourage working together as a group, I remembered my in-house training with Respond! I asked the teenagers to do a task that was to:
- Build a bridge made only out of newspaper and cellotape strong enough for something to stand on in the middle of it without falling down.
- It had to be done in a way that enabled everybody in the group that took part.
These two tasks were written in bold writing and pinned on the wall for all to see.
I played the part of ‘The Observer.’
I provided lots of newspapers and cellotape with a holder. They were not allowed to use scissors for the task. They had 30 minutes to achieve it.
After 30 minutes an object was safely standing on the top of a bridge made from newspapers.
I asked, “Did you complete the task?” Nearly everybody cheered, some more enthusiastically than others. “Yes!” they yelled.
Then I asked. How did you feel while doing it? A few of the boys shouted, “Great! … We did it!” Others felt really proud they did it. However one girl said she felt completely left out and felt her ideas weren’t even considered. Another boy, who was quite shy and new to the group, and another girl voiced more or less the same.
I asked the whole group to look again at the 2 rules of the exercise.
“Did you complete the task?” I asked again.
You certainly built a bridge….but did you do it so everyone in the group felt valued?
I told them my observations:
I noted that there was no discussion at the beginning to ask each person if they had an idea of how to start. The task revealed who took over as the perceived leader, and seemed to be a tussle between two of the boys. Others seemed to give their power away, allowing others to take the lead. When it was obvious that one of their ideas wouldn’t work, nobody spoke up to contradict him and time was wasted in trying to make it work. One girl sat way in the corner and just watching the whole scene. One boy, new to the group, suggested something but nobody seemed to listen. Another boy and his girlfriend seemed to discuss things together as if they were in a separate group. The new boy joined them, a bridge started to emerge, and that’s when they all joined in.
After lots of discussion afterwards, this exercise helped them to be more aware and considerate of each other. Whenever I’ve done this powerful exercise, it has made me more aware of the power dynamics in any group: who had the loudest voice (not necessarily the most intelligent), and who were the voiceless (usually the wisest.)
Note: I once did this exercise with an adult male / female group. One woman was in tears when she was telling us she felt completely left out. Before any discussion to talk about her feelings, she there and then left the whole group and never came back.
There were good days and bad with the teenagers. Because not everybody started and finished the programme at the same time, group dynamics had to be continually dealt with. Sometimes, when I thought I was making progress, I would find myself getting the brunt of all their frustrations, which often drained me.
The manager said, “If they get too bad, send them home.” I never saw this as an option as I knew they would lose money from the pittance they had. However on one occasion a 16 year old girl (J), who had been absent for a while and who had missed out on the positive group dynamics which had occurred while she was away, was particularly aggressive and verbally abusive. She was encouraging others to be the same. I reminded her of the boundaries. I gave her several warnings that I would send her home if her negative behaviour continued. Finally, very reluctantly I did. I felt like a failure. The manager later told me that that particular morning (J) had just found out that she was pregnant.
This really affected me. There was no place in our meeting room to talk to any of them in private if they had problems. They were told to go to the manager if they had a problem inside or outside the organisation, but those problems didn’t trickle down to me, probably because of confidentiality issues. The manager wasn’t actually working face to face with the teenagers. It was important for me to understand them more to get into their shoes. That way I could be available to listen to them if they needed to talk about anything. If I had known about (J’s) situation, maybe I would have handled it differently. I then began to make myself available by hanging back at lunch times. Sometimes those with problems hung back too. Their personal problems were aired informally but confidentially. I told the manager I was doing this and explained the reasons why.
Part of my job was to get the teens a three week work placement. Instead of just putting a square peg into a round hole, I got creative and borrowed an Open University publication called, Make Your Experience Count from my support group.
The book was a series of 10 sessions and 5 optional sessions to help people get a sense of ‘self’, to learn from their past experience, and to find a direction in life. I showed the group the programme step by step and they agreed to work with it.
They brainstormed their own set of ground rules. By doing this and by me agreeing to put one or two up too, there was more chance in them owning them.
Their rules were such things as:
- Don’t judge other people’s opinions.
- Confidentiality (in the big group and in the smaller groups).
- No drugs/alcohol /glue etc.
- Go for a ‘fag’ outside if work gets done.
- No one is forced to speak if I they don’t want to.
- Don’t speak when other people are speaking.
- Don’t speak for somebody else.
The rules were displayed on a flip chart and in full view for reference. During these exercises it suddenly dawned on me that, although they could read and write, maybe some couldn’t read as well as I presumed they could. Maybe this was a reason for their previous reluctance to join in other things. It was therefore very important to use different mediums of communication such as ‘role play’, painting, stick man drawings, or using pictures or music etc.
“The child should have the freedom of expression.
This right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart
information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers
either orally, in writing or in print, or in the form of art,
or through any other media of the child’s choice.”
Article 13: UN Convention for the Rights of the Child
An exercise such as bringing a carrier bag of six items that were special to them gave a brilliant catalyst to talk about themselves. This in turn shifted their interest to listen to each other. I felt as though they were releasing a pressure valve inside of themselves. When appropriate I shared things about myself and broke down their preconceptions about me. The idea of these exercises was to establish how they saw themselves. We talked about times when they had felt proud of themselves, and how they felt when they had been ‘put down.” They analysed, by drawing a lifeline, what they had learned from life. Did any good come out of negatives? They identified skills they enjoyed using, such as working with people, information technology, artistic or practical skills.
Some would say, “I’m only good at … ” or “I should do…”. I encouraged them to drop the ‘only’ and say “I’m good at…” I also asked them to challenge the word ‘should,’ and then to replace it with “I want,” and test how that feels. I explained that ‘should’ usually came from other people’s expectations. But I encouraged them to weigh up the consequences, then make a decision. When they were talking about themselves, I continuously encouraged them to say ‘I’ instead of the universal ‘you’. This was to encourage them to take on self responsibility.
Role plays helped them practice for job interviews. It also helped them practice saying ‘NO’ as their peers often kept them involved with drugs.
Among other things, we brought in speakers on AIDS, drugs, benefits advice (sometimes they informed the speaker!). A friend of mine was a Rainbow Tai Chi tutor and he gave us all lessons for free. I wasn’t sure how the group would take to a meditative style of music and performing slow body movements, but it proved to be very popular. I also introduced them to the UN Declaration for the Rights of a Child, and they devised and led quizzes on these rights.
They had gained enough confidence in themselves to identify and organise a variety of visits to different organisations, such as Fire and Police Headquarters, Sports Halls, Animal Sanctuaries etc.
Democratic Decision Making
(S) was a seventeen year old girl brought up by a single father nicknamed ‘Spider,’ because he had tattoos of spiders covering his entire body. She wore a tight black leather suit with sixteen large knuckle duster rings adorning her fingers. Every Friday morning she would tell us all of her exploits with the ‘stripper’ in the night club the night before. Her stories were always challenging. She borrowed her friend’s card to prove she was 18 to get into the strip club.
By listening beyond the stories, though, I noticed a positive caring streak in her in the group work. She told us of her concern for her grandma who was bed ridden and who she cared for a lot. I asked her if she would like a placement in the nearby school for children with severe disability challenges. Her face lit up. I told the manager about this and she secured an interview for a placement in the school. However I worried if she would pass an interview with all those knuckle duster rings. I realised these rings were her identity, they were very important to her.
“Some parties undertake the right of the child to preserve his or her identity...including nationality, name and family relations.”
Article 8: UN Convention for the Rights of a Child
I was careful not to tell her to take them off but asked, “What do you think of your rings?” “Oh I’m not taking them off,” she replied and looked at me as though she resented that I might force her to do it. “Why should I?” I simply replied. “That’s fine,” and I left it at that. A few days before the interview she came to me and asked, “What did you mean about my rings?” I replied, “You don’t have to do anything. I’d just like the interviewer to see YOU beyond your rings.” That’s all I said on the matter.
“The need to control to ensure the desired outcome is at least partly rooted in the fear of failure. For me to empty myself of my over controlling tendencies, I must continually empty myself of this fear, I must be willing to fail.“
M.Scott Peck 1990: p. 99
I went with her to the interview a few days later and she kept them on. We sat down on the two chairs in the short narrow passage opposite the interview room. She still had them on. After she was called in she entered the room and she still had them on, as she closed the door behind her she asked, “Linda, will you hold my rings?”
I knew this was a BIG thing for her to do. It was as though she was giving away her identity. She had taken on board her own responsibility and was successful in passing her interview for the three week placement.
I went in to see her half way through her three week placement and I found her in the playground. She was encircled by dozens of laughing children who could walk. She knew every single one of them by name. She worked with the most severely disabled. She introduced me to a girl who was paralised from the neck down and could only move her eyes. Then she took me to the kitchen where some, with not so many serious challenges, were learning to cook. She next led me to the relaxing light and sound room to meet others. She absolutely shone. When her placement was finished she went back as a volunteer.
A further breakthrough in the group was when two 17 year old lads joined us and had lots of enthusiasm to start a Youth Magazine. This was a good catalyst to give all the teenagers their own voice. These lads positively motivated the rest of the group. Life seemed easy….The girl who I had once sent home, loved fashion and was in charge of the beauty column. The two lads, crazy on football, interviewed local school football teams and printed results. (B) who was fantastic at art, drew cartoons and designed the newsletter. (L) who had just come off heroin ‘cold turkey’ looked so proud to see her absolutely inspiring poem in print.
However, after our first publication the manager moved the two 17 year olds into the woodwork shop (only available for 18 year olds). She said that they weren’t supposed to be there to support others and they were too good for our group. She moved them into the woodwork shop even though they were not yet 18 and had shown no interest whatsoever in woodwork.
Dealing with Conflict
Pressure came from the manager. With new people coming and going she would often take over the class with a heavy hand. This confused the students and I was often the one to pick up the pieces.
(P) was asked by the manager to make a Christmas Card and put sequins on it. This apparently would give him a tick in the NVQ book.
“State Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to the development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.”
Article 29: UN Convention on the Right of a Child
When the manager left the room I was left with (P) throwing everything on the table across the room including the sequins. Everyone looked excited, their eyes glued on me expecting me to yell. I calmly asked (P) to pick them up. Of course he wouldn’t…he would lose face. I was in a potentially dangerous situation…he had a history of violence. He had already burned a school down. Momentarily all I could think of was the ‘knowing my rights exercises’ from my counselling course and ironically had passed onto them in our previous group work discussions.
I had the right to say ‘NO,’ but just as importantly, so had every other human being. This enabled me to accept his decision and after I told him why I accepted his decision, I proceeded to pick them up myself. I asked for help from the others but they jeered at me. Then (P) began to help then so did the rest.
Perhaps he appreciated being offered a choice. I had not forced him to do anything and finally everybody helped.
I went to see the management because I felt the structures of the organisation were not in step with the needs of the teenagers. Some joined while others were in the middle or about to end their 12 week course. This always changed the dynamics of the group and ‘group power’ status had to be continuously dealt with at every basic level.
I was told, “This is the way we have to do it to get the funding.”
Funding was their main concern, but what was their funding for? They had lost their focus. I believed that central to everything should have been the teenagers.
It was no use getting the funding just to stay in the same disabling structures. By taking the focus off the needs of the teenagers, what happened to them?
Eventually, one got the sack from the manager, two got pregnant. (B) who had fantastic artistic skills joined the army. Nine months after starting the job I was given my notice and was asked to leave. About two months later the organisation closed down.
Conclusion: This job was a deep learning curve for me. The biggest job difficulty was being committed to a person-centred approach within constraining top down structures. This job was a microcosm of a nationwide problem.
The teenagers that I worked with were surviving the brunt end of top down economic structures. Elements of this job revealed that, given the right person-centred on non-compulsory conditions, teenagers have the opportunity to become the experts in finding solutions for themselves. If I can continue to understand their unique context, listen non-judgmentally, and trust them, then with the support to find their own self actualising process, I believe the policy makers, if they are listening, can certainly learn from them.
To go back and read Chapter 4, click HERE.