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How Devon’s youth workers have continued their support to young people during COVID-19

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One year on – A Day of Reflection

Devon’s frontline youth workers have embraced the digital age over the last year to enable them to continue to support young people during the pandemic.

In Devon there are approximately 85 youth workers, supported by 27 volunteers, who work on behalf of SPACE – commissioned by Devon County Council (DCC) to run its youth services.

And in many cases their support has made the difference between a young person facing an uncertain future or becoming a productive and valued member of society.

This is despite of the restrictions imposed by the pandemic – youth centres have had to temporarily close with the majority of their services moved online.

One of their most successful innovations was the creation of an invite-only online youth club via the Discord app.

Open every evening there has so far been almost 2,000 attendances and it’s been so successful it has been shared with 15 voluntary sector youth clubs across the county.

And to help young people to access online services DCC helped provide equipment including laptops.

“Providing this equipment has allowed young people to engage in support services, to access and engage in their school work and connect with friends and family,” said Jennefer Whitley, Head of Innovation & Growth at SPACE.

“One young person with special educational needs had been shielding for a year and had never been to a youth centre and the only social activities he was engaging with was being driven to the beach by his parents.

“He joined an online session and made a new friend. It’s made such a difference.”

Clearly online youth sessions are no substitute for the real thing. Young people have missed having somewhere to go, something to do and a trusted adult to talk to – but there have been some silver linings.

“Staff have been able to collaborate across teams and areas of Devon more than ever before, learning from each other what works and what doesn’t,” she added.

Up to youth workers to develop new skills

With no guidebook on how to deliver youth services during lockdown to hand, it was up to the youth workers themselves to develop new skills – youth workers like Alex Gurpinar, who leads a team in Newton Abbot.

Dan Barton, Partnerships and Project Lead for SPACE, said:

“She has not only embraced but pioneered many of the changes we’ve put in place so we can continue to support and develop young people.”

“She has continually demonstrated her determination to keep young people connected, safe, valued and happy.”

It’s leadership qualities like this that last week lead to her being recognised at the recent national Inspiring Hope Awards 2021, organised by UK Youth.

The awards recognise the contributions of youth workers throughout the UK – and Alex was honoured despite more than 350 other nominations from across the UK.

Another success of Alex’s highlighted at the awards was a pilot project aimed at reducing violence in Newton Abbott.

Three years ago Alex and her team began chatting to the young people concerned in settings where they felt most at ease, like parks.

Gradually, over time they built relationships and gained their trust.

Then, each Friday night they arranged a series of activities, including group sessions.

The focus of these group sessions included the consequences of the young people’s actions, exploitation, exit strategies, how they feel and their home lives.

This helped the youth workers better understand the reasons for their behaviours and how to address them. For some mediation was needed, while others benefitted from speech and language assessments.

Kev Henman, CEO of SPACE said:

“She is trusted by agencies to give honest accounts of what are the pressing issues facing young people and where things could be done differently or better. This has meant that support could be tailored according to their particular needs.

“We are now benefitting from the success of this scheme. Issues in the town have decreased and many of them have become volunteers and advocates.”

Alex added:

“It’s nice to be recognised but it’s important to say that there are hundreds of youth workers across the country who are making a difference to young people’s lives every day in exceptionally challenging environments.

“When you know a young person’s background and you are able to help them in some way and you watch them grow, it makes it all worth it. It’s very rewarding.”