Isolated teenagers at risk of being drawn into drug gangs are being supported and encouraged to keep busy by volunteer mentors, thanks to a Wiltshire Community Foundation grant.
The Youth Adventure Trust, which works with troubled teenagers, has been given £5,000 from the community foundation’s Swindon and Wiltshire Coronavirus Response Fund to set up an online support network during the lockdown.
The fund has so far raised more than £650,000 and has now distributed more than £400,000 to 113 groups across Wiltshire and Swindon.
Director of fundraising Louise Balaam said the group, which works with 190 young people aged between 11 and 16 all over Swindon and Wiltshire, said: “We normally run an outdoor adventure-based programme and we take young people out on residential camps and activity days and so but obviously we can’t do that at the moment.
“We want to try and support them through these times because they need us more than ever right now. The challenges that they are facing, the reasons why they were referred to us in the first place, haven’t gone away because of Covid, it has made it even harder to deal with those situations.”
She said the YAT wanted to set up its mentoring service via video calls because there may be no one else for the young people to talk to. But with regular fundraising at a halt it needed help. “We have had to furlough staff so the grant from the Wiltshire Community Foundation has been absolutely brilliant because it has allowed us to work with the most vulnerable young people on our books. We have got some volunteer mentors in place and identified 53 of the most vulnerable young people and are offering them fortnightly mentoring sessions,” she said.
“We were really aware that for our young people their safety nets have just completely gone, there is nobody in school keeping an eye on them, mental health services have a huge waiting list and social services aren’t able to go into the homes in the same way that they were. We’ve worked with these young people for at least a year now, and we’ve helped them to identify their own objectives and different coping strategies, so we are really well placed to help them carry on with that journey because they and their families already trust us.”
The charity works with 21 partner organisations, including four schools in and around Swindon - Ridgeway, Lawn, Swindon Academy and Kingsdown – who refer teenagers who are struggling to cope or at risk of being drawn into criminal behaviour.
“They suffer from incredibly low self-confidence, no self-belief or anxiety. They could be living in chaotic households or have parents with mental health issues or who are in and out of prison. There could be drug and alcohol misuse in the household, or they could be living in poverty,” said Mrs Balaam.
“Some of our young people are living in care and we have a number of places reserved for young carers.”
She said teenagers who are bored and have no positive role models, or are unable to get good advice or support, are in danger of drifting into county lines drug gangs. “We know that it’s a higher risk because there is very little going on at home or at school and the young people that we work with are all vulnerable. I understand there is also evidence that the county lines gangs are engaging with the parents because they are all suffering as well,” she said.
She said the hour-long calls set goals and allow the teenagers to talk about their problems and frustrations. Mrs Balaam said: “The mentor tries to have some consistency and set them challenges for the fortnight ahead.
“We had one person who is absolutely terrified of going outside now, so the mentor has managed to get them to go outside and draw a picture of a tree. It is just helping them take small steps to give them more confidence to re-engage with the world as soon as we are allowed to.
“For many of them it is the only hour in a fortnight when they are getting some positive interaction with an adult.”
The YAT is staying in touch with the rest of the young people on its books via texts and emails. As more staff come back from furlough it hopes to arrange some group activities. “We would also like to hold some activity days in the autumn if the rules allow,” said Mrs Balaam.
Find out more about the YAT at youthadventuretrust.org.uk.
To donate to the Wiltshire and Swindon Coronavirus Response Fund or to find out how to apply for a grant, go to wiltshirecf.org.uk.