Helping out - the Prince's way

FOR young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, their struggle in life can take a double-blow. Not only is age against them, but perhaps their background too.

By Debbie Watson

FOR young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, their struggle in life can take a double-blow. Not only is age against them, but perhaps their background too.

Here, Debbie Watson reports the story of a young woman's experience of the one charity which seems to so successfully conquer those hurdles – The Prince's Trust.

EMILY Chalker readily admits that life has been far from easy.

As she talks, in a mature and unmistakably sincere manner, she offers vague reference to her troubled past – references on which she does not care to elaborate.

One senses that her future could, had she not of consciously taken an alternative and altogether more proactive pathway, so easily have been vastly different to the bright one which faces her today.

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Emily, at 18, is one of the great success stories which emanate from the community concept, The Prince's Trust.

Today, in her Benezet Street office of the YMCA, she finds herself in a job role which she unashamedly loves.

Hour upon hour she spends her time helping others to help themselves; helping people to help their surrounds; helping people with the self same intentions, motivations and insecurities with which she joined the Prince's Trust last summer.

"Sometimes it's hard to believe how much I've managed to transform myself through my involvement in the project," she admits. "Nowadays I'm employed by the YMCA to work for the Prince's Trust – and yet only a year ago I was arriving here as a new volunteer, and suffering from a lot less confidence and esteem than I have today."

As a student at Suffolk College back in May 2001, Emily, from Felixstowe, was encouraged to get involved with The Prince's Trust within her BTEC Public Services course.

By her own admission, she knew little about the operation, about the work it did, the people it helped, and the great change it would potentially bring to her own life.

"Like a lot of people, I'd heard about the Trust but I was still rather unclear about what it could achieve – I wasn't looking for it to accomplish anything in particular for me.

"I never could have anticipated the way things turned out."

Prince's Trust is essentially a cause aimed at helping young people to fulfil their potential. Launched by the Princes of Wales himself, it works with 14 to 30 year olds who face disadvantage and aims to help them start businesses, improve skills, find jobs – or just enhance their own community.

In Emily's case, even if she hadn't thought she needed it, it achieved all manner of these aims.

"I arrived on the course with very little expectation, knowing that it was a 12 week programme and that I would then go back to College with the long term aim of being in the police," she explained.

"What I found was something that really inspired me and really brought me out of myself – something that I found myself more and more proud to be a part of."

She said: "Initially I was attending the trust for two days a week to get to know the rest of the people that were put into my 'team' of ten.

"Then we went away on a trip to Wales to learn to live with each other and plan rotas and complete tasks – and after that, we began the four week project."

As part of the Personal Development Programme in which Emily was enrolled, this four-week project forms one of the major parts.

It is intended to serve the community and to help the team unite and use their skills to the advantage of others.

Emily, together with her P.T comrades, chose Belstead Special School as their goal.

"We opted to plan and make a chill-out room for the special needs children," she said.

"We carried out fundraisers to help us purchase equipment, designed the room and gave it a complete facelift. It was a thoroughly rewarding experience and one of those life-changing eye-openers that makes you suddenly realise that – no matter what you ever thought about yourself in the past – you do have a future."

Such was Emily's 'life-changing experience' that she opted not to return to college, and instead, to seek her destiny elsewhere.

"I'd gone to college with the main goal of getting into the police because I wanted to help young people," she said frankly. "Through all the experiences that I'd had growing up – and they were pretty hard ones – I'd grown up realising that there are some very troubled youngsters out there who need society's help and support.

"I thought if I got in to the police I could make a difference and I could help today's young people to realise that drugs and alcohol are not answers, and neither is crime."

Emily's career motivations did not change, but thanks to the Trust, her pathway did.

"The Trust made me realise that I could achieve my goals of helping other people even better through the Prince's Trust," she explained.

"I didn't want or need to go back to college so I began the work placement programme with the Trust, and as soon as I finished, they offered me a job."

Now, having realised the benefits of the project herself, Emily is busy being employed by the YMCA to continue running the Prince's Trust course here in Ipswich.

She said: "I help the team leaders of each project to come up with various ways of working in the community – giving them ideas, discussing options, working out what they will need.

"I love what I do. I feel like it achieved so much for me in terms of making me feel more confident and sure about what it is I want to achieve with my working life.

"I want to return the favour now. It's like I'm getting to pass some of that positive feeling on to other people who desperately need it."

Emily cannot hide the great enthusiasm she harbours for Prince's Trust.

She sees it as a tool in helping people of all backgrounds to come together and to help themselves – while helping others.

"I always felt I wanted to help young people, but through this work, that intention has only become stronger and more urgent," Emily insisted.

"I'm forever finding myself battling against the hurdles that society seems to put in the way when it comes to young people.

"I realise that unfair categorising of young people goes on all the time, and that it's a crippling thing for young people to have to deal with. I've been there. I should know."

She added: "The assumptions of society are still very cruel and unnecessary, and I've sat here with young people and watched them in tears because they're frustrated at the fact that age seems to play against them.

"All I, and so many young people, want to do is to get on and to serve others as well as ourselves.

"If I can achieve that for just a handful of people, then I really will be achieving the goal I always set myself – I'll just have done it by rather an unexpected, but thoroughly rewarding, route."