If anyone can see the scale and the impact the current council budget cuts are having on at-risk teenagers it is Joe Russo, founder and chief executive of Derby-based charity Enthusiasm. Patrick Weir reports
The charity, which started out as a weekly youth club in the Allerton area, now works intensively to help 11-to-18-year-olds most at risk of offending and social exclusion. At one time it had 162 at-risk young people on its books. This has been reduced to just 75, directly as a result of cuts from Derby Council and agencies including Connexions, Russo says.
Consequently, Enthusiasm has had to shed six of its 25 full-time staff and slash its services to young people in the process. A worryingly high number of teenagers referred to the charity by agencies such as the police and social services are now not being picked up, Russo claims.
“What’s going to happen to these kids? Cuts to our funding will, I believe, lead to an increase in criminality simply because these vulnerable kids are no longer getting the vital support they need. Agencies are referring kids to us but we can’t take them on. Is this really a considered agenda for the welfare of at-risk kids? Of course it isn’t.
“The public sector cuts don’t so much worry me as scare me, because they are so deep and indiscriminate. The outcomes for many troubled young people generally, and particularly those who have been in care, are historically grim. We need to re-evaluate the financial provision for these kids. It costs £150,000 to lock up a teenager for a year, the same amount it costs us to work with 50 kids on our estate. And two out of three of them will come out of prison and re-offend. It’s absurd and doesn’t work.”
A self-employed carpenter and former youth volunteer, Russo moved to Derby from Manchester 19 years ago. Keen to return to community work, he introduced himself to youngsters in the area and quickly discovered a culture of drug abuse, petty crime and boredom. Setting up a youth club as a focal point for these young people didn’t seem such a bad idea. And being self-employed allowed Russo the flexibility to forge links with local people and garner support.
“A vicar agreed to let me use his church hall for free,” says Russo. “Before I knew it, up to 300 kids were coming every Friday night. Other volunteers came on board and we promoted the youth club in schools.”
Eager to address the social issues that blighted the estate, Russo and his colleagues used the youth club’s kitchen to discuss drug abuse, sexual health and crime with the youngsters. “They knew that we cared. Soon we were arranging drug counselling and finding kids somewhere to sleep when they’d been kicked out of home,” Russo says.
Within seven years Enthusiasm’s success was such that local councillors, youth service workers and the police were turning up on Friday nights. Taking part in a successful joint bid to the East Midlands Development Agency for £4.2m, took Enthusiasm to a different level in terms of the services it could provide.
Many of the charity’s mentors have passed through its doors as troubled young people and are NVQ-trained. “They are like a big brother or sister to these kids, which is so important when developing relationships. Bringing a kid face-to-face with someone who believes in them and is totally devoted to them is the core of what we do. And if a kid tells one of these mentors that they don’t understand what their life is like, the mentor can reply, ‘yes I do, because that used to be my life.'”
That a dispirited young person from the estate can not only become a mentor, but also hold their own in meetings with drug and alcohol workers or the police, is a source of considerable pride to Russo. “I’ve seen our kids go into further education and get jobs,” adds Russo. “And last year 83% of them on our targeted programme neither offended nor re-offended.”
But all this hard work is now being put in danger. The charity’s income of £700,000 last year has been halved due to cuts. Russo is trying to develop consultancy and training programmes to sell to other organisations, determined Enthusiasm won’t go to the wall. But he is acutely aware of the looming threat of further cuts to services for teenagers over this year.
“We’re in very dangerous waters. Kids today are increasingly demonised by politicians and society, just as the mentally ill were in Victorian times. In years to come, people will look back in even greater shame at the way our kids have been treated.”
(Pic of Joe Rosso by Neil O’Connor0
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