Keeping the options open for local young people

“We’ve got lots going on at the moment,” Pamela says as she leads me upstairs for our chat. “We’re preparing for a local parade just now.”

The Chill Out Room at The Factory Youth Zone has comfy chairs and sofas; books about anger management and sexual health, and lots of motivational posters.

I start at the beginning. “When did this place open? How long have you been here?”

“We opened in February 2012,” says Pamela Mason, “and I’ve been here from the start.”

A large colourful box of a building right in the centre of Harpurhey, The Factory Youth Zone is unusual for a youth centre. Pamela explains that it’s run by a charity and the building was paid for in part by local businesses and patrons.

“We got funding from people and organisations who wanted to invest in young people,” she says. “And there are more centres like this now open in Oldham, Wigan, Preston, all over.

“The traditional youth service provided by local authorities doesn’t exist any more. We’re the new path for that work. Our job is to keep the options open for young people.”

Pamela’s career in youth work started as a work placement at a youth club as part of a social care qualification. In her first paid role in Wythenshawe she and her colleagues toured the estate with their transit van.

“We’d park in hotspots where young people would congregate,” she recalls, “and we’d throw open the side of van where there’d be some seating, a kettle and even an X-box. It was up to us to discourage otherwise antisocial behaviour.”

Her first role at The Factory Youth Zone was as an outreach worker but has since moved through the ranks and is now Head of Youth managing a team of full and part-time staff.

“What sort of challenges do young people face in this area?” I ask.

“Well, as you know, the statistics show that Harpurhey and Moston are near the top – or the bottom, depending on which way you look at it – for things like domestic violence, child sexual exploitation, poor school attendance, poor health, drug and alcohol abuse. These all affect young people directly or indirectly.”

“And The Factory Youth Zone is making a difference?”

“Absolutely,” says Pamela. “We have up to 150 young people attending our senior sessions each week and about 140 coming to the junior sessions. And they keep coming back, so we must be doing our job well.”

But Pamela and her colleagues can’t do everything. “We often need to refer young people to other services – mental health, debt advice, housing or employment – and all these are under-resourced. It can take time before our young people get the extra help and support they need.”

The Fourteen programme has helped. The Factory Youth Zone has been awarded funding to run an 18-month project that encourages 14-19-year-olds to train as young leaders.

“We’ve been able to employ an extra member of staff who’s written the Learn2Lead programme which includes safeguarding training, a social action campaign and voluntary work placements,” says Pamela.

“It’s great to see the older ones with Young Leader printed on the back of their T-shirts, acting as role models for our junior members.”

“And what about being part of the Local Reference Group for the Fourteen programme?” I ask, “Has that been useful?”

“It’s like having a whole new group of colleagues,” enthuses Pamela, “with lots of new resources and contacts. You get to know much more about what’s happening in the area and learn new ways of working.

“It’s been great to get to know all the other community groups in our Big Meets, and we’re hoping, as part of the Learn2Lead project, to place some young volunteers with those groups.”

To find out what’s available for young people at The Factory Youth Zone, check their website or call into the reception.

“We’re teaching these kids a way of life.”

Continued from “The best feeling ever.”

We’re at Collyhurst and Moston boxing gym and I’m in the middle of interviewing 15-year-old boxer, Ellie O’Brien. She’s been telling me about winning her first boxing bout.

“What do you think this place does for local young people?” I ask.

“It keeps you off the street,” Ellie says, emphatically. “You’re here making something with your life rather than out doing nothing. You’re making your future aren’t you?”

“And how does affect other parts of your life?”

“It’s made me a different person. I feel more committed. You can’t only be a boxer in the ring, you’ve got to be a boxer outside the gym as well. You’ve got to be eating right, sleeping right. On the nights I’m not here I run for six miles. You’ve got to have the right attitude.”

Ellie’s dad is here to pick up her brother. “It’s really improved her confidence,” Lee says. “She’s a totally different person. It’s all she talks about.”

“So this club has a big impact?”

“Massive. Not just on Ellie but on the whole community. It’s so important what Tommy, Pat and the other trainers do for them. If it wasn’t for this, all these kids would be messing about on the street with the rest of them. It keeps them on the straight and narrow.

“Ellie’s disciplined now. She goes home after her training and gets on with her school work. It’s massively changed her life.”

The older kids are warming up now, shadow boxing, hitting punch bags. I catch up with Tommy again.

“It’s very impressive,” I tell him. “It’s not the most glamorous place but what you are doing is really important.”

“These kids need this place,” he says, passionately. “When I was a kid, I needed this place. Let me show you what we’re doing in here.”

Tommy leads me through the weaving boxers. “Don’t be hitting Len now,” he says to no one in particular. A door on the other side of the gym leads to what looks as if it was once a storeroom. Now laptops sit on a couple of tables.

“I’ve made this into a classroom,” says Tommy. “You know, there are some kids who won’t go to school but they will come here. They love it, they feel at home here. They might never be boxers but we can teach them other skills too.

“These kids feel part of something and we can help build their confidence from within. I know, as a kid, boxing saved me.”

“You’re creating a safe place,” I say. “And that’s very important.”

“Brian’s favourite quote was, ‘We don’t teach kids boxing, we teach them a way of life’. And that’s what we’re still doing. Yes, we’re boxers, but we’re respectful people and we help each other.”

“It’s really inspiring,” I say. “And what about your involvement with Forever Manchester and the Fourteen programme? How has that worked?”

“It’s been really useful not only with the funding we’ve had but also with making connections. Off the LRG (the Local Reference Group) we’ve done quite a lot of work with MaD Theatre and with FC United. They’ve all been great, we’ve a really good group.

“We’ve had some funding for video equipment and we’ve made a little video with MaD that the police are using now, so that’s been good.

“Yes, first and foremost we’re a boxing club but lots of kids want to do others things within the safety of the club, and the Fourteen programme has allowed us to do that.”

A new book about the boxing club’s 100-year history will be published later this year. We’ll be reporting on it here.

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“The best feeling ever.”

“Left hand…right hand,” encourages Ellie. “Now shadow box… switch… and stretch.”

While the 15-year-old is warming up the youngsters, Tommy Mcdonagh shows me a photo on the boxing gym wall. “This was taken five years ago when we took over. That’s Lyndon Arthur, he’s professional now, unbeaten in four fights. That’s Zelfa Barrett, unbeaten in 15.”

He shouts across the training room: “Everyone get some gloves on!”

And then, to me: “We try and get them as young as possible and bring them on.

“I joined this club when I was just eight, like a lot of these,” he says. “I had my first fight at 11. I boxed for England as a schoolboy, and then as a youth and was National Champion two or three times, 66 amateur fights altogether.

“I turned pro at 18 and had 40 professional fights. I was WBU Champion, and competed for English, Commonwealth and World titles.”

“All from this club?” I ask, looking round.

Collyhurst and Moston Lads Club ABC is 100 years old this year. For much of its fascinating history it was run by Brian Hughes MBE – the ‘Godfather of Manchester Boxing’ – who was coach and mentor to dozens of local young boxers including Tommy and his partner, Pat Barrett.

Tommy ties the laces on one of the lad’s gloves. “In 2010, when I was retiring from boxing, Brian handed the club over to Pat and me and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

He’s back with the youngsters now, “Four punches: one… two… three.. four. And back”.  I borrow Ellie for a little interview.

“My little brother started coming down,” she points out one of the junior boxers, “so I’d come and use the gym to get fit. When I saw him training I thought I’d give it a go.”

“It looks like you’re the only girl here. How do you feel about that?” I ask.

“It doesn’t bother me. I get on with all the lads. It’s like we’re a big family.”

“What was it like getting in the ring for the first time?”

“I was nervous, but once I was in there doing it, I enjoyed it. I had a good feeling about myself.”

I know nothing about boxing and admit it to Ellie. “But is it equal, when you are sparring with the boys?”

“We’re both the same. We don’t go out to hurt each other.”

Ellie tells me she has now had five ‘skills’ – a non-competitive exhibition of what she can do – and one proper fight at Ashton Masonic Hall.

“Did you win?” I ask. Ellie smiles modestly. “Congratulations.”

“I did what I had to do and all the training paid off. When they announce your name as the winner, it’s the best feeling ever.”

Continued in “We’re teaching these kids a way of life.”

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