Building the Bridge of Trust: youth work at Spartans Community Football Academy

Spartans Community Football Academy joined a long list of celebrated youth work projects at our National Youth Worker of the Year Awards in March. So we’re thrilled to welcome Douglas Samuel to the blog today. Why do Spartans value the youth work approach? Read on to find out…

It’s a thrill and joy to be recognised for the work that we do. However, the greatest joy for everyone in our sector comes from not knowing where our ripples end. Prior to working for the Spartans Community Football Academy, I wasn’t fully aware of the importance of the role youth work can and does play in society. I’d never stopped to think about it, or imagine a world without it.

As I write this blog, nine years on from when we first opened our doors, I’ve seen first-hand the power and ability of youth work to change lives.  It can and does make a meaningful difference for so many young people. As a result of observing our own youth workers (and their peers from other local agencies) at close quarters, these days I now dare to look forward to the day when a youth worker is recognised and valued as a professional by everyone; someone who is appreciated and valued by people with the same warmth afforded to a doctor, a nurse or a teacher.

At the Academy, the delivery of youth work provision (on- and off-site) is a key part of who we are and what we do. Shortly before our doors opened, we recruited a Youth Work Manager to lead and drive our efforts in this particular area with the help of a Children in Need revenue grant. A desire to play our part in helping local young people to develop and grow, to have high expectations and aspirations for themselves has long been (and continues to be) a goal of ‘The Spartans family’.

It’s fair to say that our organisation started with a blank sheet of paper, fuelled on by a burning desire to support young people in whatever shape or form they needed it. From this standing start, we now welcome more than 300 young people per week into our home to take part in our regular youth work programmes such as ‘Street Football in a Safe Place’. In addition to this, we also work closely with a significant number of young people off-site in local primary schools. From kicking a ball with some mates in a safe, clean and ‘free’ place to play, to receiving 1:1 support from an Academy ‘blue coat’ in their local primary or high school, young people can experience the support and helping hand of an Academy ‘blue coat’ each week.

‘Street Football in a Safe Place’ has grown into a wide range of programmes, such as our signature youth club ‘Friday FooTEA’, ‘Making Magic Memories’ and ‘A Game of Two Halves’ homework clubs, enabling us to support and work with hundreds of young people in different settings each year. An exciting development in recent times has been our ‘Youth Worker in a Primary School’ project, an initiative being monitored and evaluated by The University of Edinburgh over a three-year period. Banking the learns, what works versus what doesn’t, along the way is key if we are to deliver our vision of a youth worker based in each of our local primary schools one day.

Whichever programme or interaction it may be, our youth work model and philosophy is underpinned by some key principles. In our experience, time invested in “building the bridge of trust” is key. Our thinking is that high-quality conversations are built upon active listening, and on us being non-judgemental. We see a key part of our role as helping young people pause to reflect on the consequences of the choices they are making, both when reflecting on the highs and the lows.

I often talk about the journey with a young person being a three-legged race. However, perhaps it’s an analogy that fails to acknowledge the special moments when a young person can stand on our shoulders (so to speak). To look further into the future and truly dare to ‘dream big, dream fierce’. Crucially it’s their journey. Our role is to help to ensure it’s fun, to encourage and nurture, and to help young people to manage the various different transitions and stages in their childhood. To be something (or someone) they know is there to help them on their journey, in whatever shape or form they may need.

This award encourages us to pause and reflect, and in doing so to recognise how far we’ve come. Lots of people and key funders have helped us to become a part of the youth work landscape, like The Robertson Trust, The Rank Foundation, Children in Need, TACC and Cash for Kids. Our award is shared with them, key individuals who have helped to shape our approach and thinking, and all of the young people we have worked with since we opened our doors.

Looking forward, I’m excited about the potential and opportunity for us to work more closely with our local youth work partners, for us to explore and challenge ourselves to do more. Against a backdrop of local authority funding cuts, and a grant funding space which cannot meet an ever-increasing number of requests for help and support, it won’t be easy. However, what is certain is that we will continue to invest our time, efforts and energies into playing our small part in helping local young people to enjoy their childhood and ‘wonder years’. To help create ripples which have no end.

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