(This is the third of a series of articles in which I speak to key individuals working in the HeadStart pilot projects that are underway around Wolverhampton. The aim of the articles is to tell their stories of how HeadStart funding, and the hardwork and inspiration of teams of professionals, are starting to transform the lives of children and young people, and of their parents and carers. It would be great to receive your comments on the article, or ideas for other types of content on HeadStart.fm. Please use the comment form at the bottom of the article)
"Kicsters is an aspiration for the young people we work with", says Rob Smith, "They want to become Kicsters".
I am meeting with Rob, the head of the Kicsters project, and his colleague Ben Williams, in the HeadStart offices on Shaw Road. They have arrived prepared, with images, information, and testimonials ready to share. I'm not surprised; I've been following the Kicsters project through their website at www.kicsters.co.uk, and some fantastic work has been shared there throughout the summer.
The project is rooted in the idea that work with young people needs to be community based. "We need to go to where the issues are, not wait for the issues to come to us. Hence our idea for a pop-up Youth Club". Rob, Ben, and their team take their expertise and equipment out into the community. "That, after all, is where the real demand is", observes Ben. "If youth work is soley based at a central location, many young people will struggle to access the support and services available".
Kicsters began with some initial work over Easter, but really kicked into gear over the summer, basing themselves in two locations in The Bushbury Hill Estate. The first was the local community centre. The second, "the information house", is a converted home with a training room, computer suite, breakout areas, and space for Kicsters' portable radio station. Both locations were available to local young people for three days each week throughout the summer holidays. Working with Ian Bee at the Bushbury Estate Management Board, Kicsters sought to engage with young people from families which had historically isolated themselves from other support services. Other local young people heard about the project through word-of-mouth.
I ask Rob how Kicsters sessions work. "We use technology to engage young people with issues of mental health and resilience, but also to provide avenues for self expression and positive change", he says. "For example, we use a 'digital graffiti wall' for students to share how they feel about themselves and their lives". The video wall provides a blank canvas for young people to share their thoughts and feelings through words, symbols or sketches. The images from the wall can be captured and saved, and are then used as the basis of later discussions and follow-up work. Rob gives an example of how this has worked in practice: "In one session, issues of bullying emerged. We followed this up in group and individual discussions, and created an anti-bullying 'pledge' with the young people. The young people committed themselves to this pledge. Finally, we used our portable studio to create a radio show about bullying".
This integration of radio into Kicsters is very important to Rob. His long-running KicFM community radio station has provided support, training and work experience for many unemployed young people over many years, building confidence, skills and a positive attitude that they can take out into the world of work. The Kicsters project now brings the philosophy of KicFM to younger, school-aged students.
Other Kicsters resources include the KicPod, a portable "diary room" which young people can use to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences. "We had the KicPod in a high school recently", Rob explains. "One girl used the pod to talk about her recent, highly traumatic experiences of bullying. By opening the avenue for her to disclose the experiences she had been through, we provided a catalyst for action in the school. Things have improved dramatically for that girl now". Rob believes there is an important lesson here for all professionals who work with young people. "90% of the time, young people just want you to listen to them", he says. "Every young person we work with has a story, but many issues are not picked up early enough by traditional support systems. There is a gap between mental health issues developing in young people and them meeting the criteria to access formal support. Kicsters, and HeadStart more generally, aim to work with young people before long-term, harmful, mental health issues become established".
"The bottom line", observes Rob, "Is that if you don't want to deal with the issues young people are enduring, don't ask. If you're going to ask, if you're going to create opportunities for challenging, difficult, sometimes shocking, issues to emerge, you have to be able to react, to put young people in touch with the support and counselling they need".
Ben returns to the story of the girl who described her experiences of bullying to the camera in the KicPod. "What was amazing", he says, "Is that once issues had improved in school, we returned there and recorded interviews with both the girl, with the classmates who had bullied her, and with the Safeguarding Officer in school. We used the audio from these interviews to create an animated version of her story, sharing the perspectives of each of the young people and professionals involved. We have turned a very difficult situation into a valuable learning resource for all schools. The use of the KicPod led to meaningful change".
The retention of young people with Kicsters through the summer was incredibly high. "One parent said to me that normally, in the holidays, she can't get my daughter out of bed until well into the afternoon. When Kicsters was running, she was up and ready by 9am every morning". Kicsters is returning to Bushbury over half-term, and will continue to run one night a week during term-time. Funding has also been secured from Comic Relief for work which explores the relationship between the generations, bringing in parents or retired residents to work alongside the young people.
Rob's vision for Kicsters is very clear. "We want Kicsters to be a brand that young people aspire to, and respect. We want to give them a sense of ownership of the Kicsters name. Whether we're working in school, out of school, or are working alongside other organisations to influence policy and practice, we want to improve the lives of young people through positive actions. We want to build a generation of young people who can share their successes with their peers, and support them in succeeding too".