(This is the second 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)
Many young people in our communities - too many - endure life-changing events and trauma. Some suffer physical, psychological, or sexual abuse. Others live through the bereavement of a parent. Many have to cope with family breakdown, or bullying, or drug and alcohol issues in the home. Some are suddenly thrust into the role of being a carer for a sick parent.
For adults, these types of challenges are incredibly difficult to cope with. For young people, they can be unbearable, and can have huge implications for their confidence, self-esteem, behaviour, and ultimately, for their future working lives, relationships and mental health.
One of the truly special things about HeadStart is its ability to offer targeted support for specific groups of vulnerable young people. Girls Can Do, a project being run by Changing Lives, works with girls aged 10-14 from the Bilston area who have been through traumatic experiences in their lives.
Today, I am lucky enough to sit down with Heidi Pickrell, one of the project workers for Changing Lives, to discuss Girls Can Do, and the positive changes she is seeing in the girls who are working with her.
The aims for the Girls Can Do project are very clear. "We aim to build confidence and self-esteem in the girls", Heidi says. "We want to build their resilience". Although originally intended to work with up to 8 girls, 15 were referred by schools and other local agencies. From the start, the project was designed to be very centred around the individual needs of the girls. "We began the project by sitting down for 1-to-1 sessions with each of them", Heidi explains, "The personal stories that emerged then motivated our selection of themes for later group support sessions. Structuring the project in this way meant that, in the group sessions, the girls had been directly affected by the issues that were being discussed”.
"We are very careful to discuss with the girls what is, and is not, appropriate to share in that group context", Heidi says. "In our first group session, we drew up a 'contract' with them about how the group sessions were going to work".
The group meet once a week. In the holidays, this was for a whole afternoon. In term-time, it is an after-school get together. The group discussions are surfacing issues for the girls. During a session on abusive behaviours, one girl realised that she had been manipulated into abusive situations in the past. "She got very angry", Heidi says, "Her eyes had been opened. She was referred into individual counselling, but her reaction during that group session was an important first step".
In some sessions, outside organisations are involved. “One of the girls suffers with a serious medical condition so we asked the The Red Cross to work with them on their first aid skills", Heidi says. "The girls also attended a theatre performance from Gazebo Theater about the use and misuse of social networking, in direct response to issues that one of the girls had described in her 1-to-1 consultation".
I ask Heidi how the project is progressing. "The girls completed a questionnaire half-way through the project", she smiles. "One girl said 'I feel like sunshine. Great and powerful'. I've also had feedback from parents and carers. One of the girls lives with her grandparents. Her grandmother sent an email saying 'Whatever you're doing, it's working. Thank you'. We know that we've started these girls on a journey to becoming happier, more resilient, and more confident. A girl who was frog-marched by her parents into the first session, now insists on attending every week. And new friendships are forming between the girls. Two of the girls. who didn’t know each other before the project, decided to walk together to their first day at secondary school".
Heidi would love to develop the project further. "I'd like to be able to work with groups for longer", she says. "I'd like to be able to expand it out to other areas of the city. The people who are able to support these girls are out there. I want to be able to say "Come and join us". I'd love to develop the first cohort of girls into peer mentors to work with us. The people who are best able to support young people who have been through difficult times or trauma, are other young people who have been through the same".
Following the final group session, the girls will sit down with sessional workers for more 1-to-1 sessions. For some girls, they will be referred to further counselling from there. Heidi finishes our conversation in reflective mood. "They are a wonderful set of girls. They all have very different needs, personalities, and personal histories. I'm going to miss them all so much once the project is over".