Billy McVay takes a short break from chiselling plaster off the walls of what used to be an old meals-on-wheels kitchen, which he and seven more young people are helping to convert into a community centre in the centre of Brixton. There are no sluggards or sulkers here – everyone, young and old, is working hard and enjoying it, getting rid of the plaster, clearing rubble, preparing for the next stage.
This work has transformed Billy’s life. “I was a young teenager growing up on an estate where it was so crazy – people coming wanting to fight us,”‘ he says. “We’re on the street, up to no good. Then I started talking to John [Reece], and he got me out of the gang, into this, and into music. Now I’m a DJ as well. This has changed everything. I’m 20. My family is over the moon. My mum’s disabled. Seeing me doing this, she’s really happy. My brother’s doing the same. This is a good future for young people.”
Billy is one of 30 young people on a south London scheme called Build-itthat provides them with training and skills, involves redundant or retired older people, and regenerates the neighbourhood, all at once. Created by the charity London Youth, together with the CoSponsorship Agency, funded by the Big Lottery, and launched in April 2013, the Build-it recruits young people to work alongside older and experienced tradesmen and women in trusted local firms, repairing and refurbishing buildings. The buildings are then brought back into use as social housingand community space. Over the next two years, Build-it hopes to train 1,500 young people aged 16-25, who, with the help of 400 older mentors, will learn key trade skills while they work.
John Reece, Build-it delivery officer, finds recruits in youth clubs, prisons, job centres, through social services, the police and housing support services. “I do the softer stuff: [helping them to deal with] what’s gone on in their lives – homelessness, family problems, scared to come into the area because of gang stuff,” he says. “They have keyworkers/social workers, and support from us.”
The project seems to solve a circular problem – you can’t find work without experience, and you can’t find experience without work. “Young people get trained here, then move on to work with contractors,” says Winston Goode, who helps to manage the project. “Where better to start than at this level? They get skills for life. They enjoy it, learn about teamwork, build friendships. Some have dropped out of college, but we have a more holistic approach. They pick up a good work ethic from the older men.”
Paul Dortie, 45, a mentor with 20 years’ experience in building, and Callum Samuels, 17, seem more like a couple of mates. “He’s my star worker,” says Dortie. “He left school, came straight here, no summer holidays, worked all through that hot weather. When he gets a job, he’ll keep it. I can tell by the way he picks up his tools, his whole attitude. I’ve been in building for 20 years. Doing this, I can help to give something back.”
“If a mentor’s not fun, I don’t want to work with them,” says Callum, who has been on the project for four months. “I’ve done painting, decorating and carpentry. I start college next month, but will still carry on with this.”
Hinkitch ‘Kitchener’ Reid, 56, has also been in the building trades all his working life, and while unemployed last year, became a mentor. He’s calm, cool, always laughing. The young people call him “Uncle”. “I look on the [young people] as my own children. They make me feel young again. I can see myself in them – that was me in my youth. For me, it’s encouraging to see how young people are willing to learn, and so receptive. They want to move on and make something of themselves in the world.”
Mentor Maggie Alexander, 48, expected problems telling young men what to do. “I’ve been amazed,” she says. “They just want get things right. I’ve not had one word of disrespect or defiance.”
Livia Whyte, who manages the mentors, says of the young people: “We can’t guarantee them a job, but it’s mad how hard they work. We only pay their travel costs and food allowance. They’ve transformed several buildings, including one old disused school, into the Bright Education Centre – now used for after-school and additional school services.”
Build-it, in partnership with Lambeth council, is currently working to refurbish three empty sites. But Whyte wants to expand the scheme. “We really want to do more empty homes, get housing associations to put forward numbers of voids,” she says. “They’re just sitting there, but we should be turning them around, and we’ll ensure homes are truly affordable … We want to get these young people working on it.” She only hopes that they’ll be able to afford to live close to their families, in the homes that they have helped to build.
Some names have been changed.
Source: The Guardian – http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jan/14/young-people-renovating-scheme-mentors
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