Anthoney Williams was a small-time teenage crook. Now he is a Prince’s Trust award nominee. He tells Andrew Mickel how he walked the path from one to the other after volunteering – through government scheme Platform2 – in the UK and Ghana
“Young offender on free trip abroad” sounds like a tabloid editor’s dream. But for a young adult from a disadvantaged background what effect can such a trip actually have?
Take Anthoney Williams, a 21-year-old from Kent. Three years ago his CV consisted of burglary, carrying a weapon and attempted theft. His criminal record gave him a reputation among the local police.
Now, after 10 weeks of volunteer work in Ghana on a government-run scheme called Platform2, he’s applying for jobs and hoping to get enough money together to get a place of his own. “I know it’s the sort of thing a lot of people don’t get to experience. I learned a lot about myself,” says Williams.
His time in Ghana is a significant milestone on the road to recovering from the problems that clouded his teenage years. Originally from Gravesend, Williams moved with his family to the East Midlands when he was 14, but by 16 his life had taken a turn for the worse. “I started hanging around with the wrong people, fighting and burgling. I was spending all my money on drugs and partying, trying to get a reputation – but it wasn’t the reputation I wanted.”
The recent trip to Ghana has helped with Williams’ confidence, but he had already started turning his back on his old life when he left his family to move back down to Kent, aged 19.
After several months on friends’ floors and sleeping rough, he finally got a hostel place in November 2007. Since then he has volunteered in a primary school and with older people, and as a result he had been nominated for a Prince’s Trust award and for a young volunteer award before he even heard about the Ghana trip.
What’s the catch?
Yet when information about the project first came through Williams was sceptical. “I thought, ‘this is weird, there must be a catch’, but I couldn’t see anything in the small print. I went to the interview, got accepted, went to the briefing and realised that, no, there wasn’t a catch.
“I knew it was going to be different, because it would be my first time out of the country. I didn’t know what to think, I just decided to go there and take it all on the chin, whether or not it was OK.”
Platform2 is funded by the Department for International Development and co-run by the charities Christian Aid and Islamic Relief, and volunteer organisation Bunac. With £10m to fund the project for three years, the plan is to send 2,500 18- to 25-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds to Africa, Asia and other destinations.
Williams’ project was a few hours’ drive from the Ghanaian capital, Accra. “The first week in the city was like a holiday, learning about the country, but when we went to the village we discovered how undeveloped it is.
“It was very basic. Some of the houses didn’t have electricity because they couldn’t afford it the roads were full of holes and there were kids everywhere wearing dirty clothes with holes in. It’s eye opening, making you realise how lucky you are to have what you have.”
The working day focused on manual work, such as road levelling and log piling, as well as teaching children in the local school. Outside those hours, the volunteers were expected to live life alongside the locals, growing food and dealing with livestock as part of the village, something that left an impression on Williams.
“I’ve learnt that money is not as important as people make it out to be,” he says. “And I’ve learnt that I’m lucky to have what I have, to have a family – I’m so lucky not to have malaria, lucky to have a dishwasher, a real cooker, electricity and water.”
Having returned from the trip in October, Williams was inspired to collect clothes, shoes and books to send to the village. He’s also been promoting the project in the media and with friends (he says there are “loads of people” who want to do the project).
And on a personal level, the trip has helped to refocus Williams on properly settling in Kent, taking a course through the local Jobcentre and finding work again. “My family is really happy for me,” he says.
“I don’t think they’ve ever been proud of me before. I just want to get a bit of work so I’m doing something during the day and I don’t fall back again.”