New youth centre takes shape

RAPIDLY taking shape in a former office suite overlooking The Triangle in Felixstowe is the £200,000 centre youngsters have wanted for years.When it opens this spring, the advice and support centre will make the resort's young people the envy of their peers in many other towns.

By Richard Cornwell

RAPIDLY taking shape in a former office suite overlooking The Triangle in Felixstowe is the £200,000 centre youngsters have wanted for years.

When it opens this spring, the advice and support centre will make the resort's young people the envy of their peers in many other towns.

The centre – to be known as Level2 – will be a coffee bar and meeting place, somewhere the youngsters can relax and call their own.

But it will be so much more than somewhere to meet up with pals, chat, play pool, table soccer, browse the internet, or sit and read, chill out.

It will be a place where they can access all the services open to young people, meet youth workers, discuss problems, receive counselling, do their homework in peace, get advice on jobs and training, money, legal matters and health.

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Most importantly, it will be a place where parents, carers and teachers, and other officials will only be allowed to visit with the youngsters' consent.

Project manager Samara Backhouse said it would be a "safe friendly and confidential place".

She said: "It is important the community has facilities like this and there is very little like it in Felixstowe and there is a wide need," said Samara.

"We want the young people to feel this is a safe environment – that it is their place, where they can be themselves without people judging them and making assumptions about their behaviour.

"We want them to help us run it and decide the way forward, because the future is up to them and their needs.

"So much will be led by the young people – we are providing them with a blank canvas. It's not for the adults to decide their needs."

The premises, on the top floor above Tesco in Hamilton Road, have been acquired on a lease by the Felixstowe Youth Development Group, thanks to a grant from the National Lottery Community Fund.

Contractors are frantically working in the huge open-plan former shipping office – which has excellent panoramic views over the seaside town – to create a coffee bar, work areas, counselling rooms, storage and study space.

It is hoped to have the centre open for the February half-term holiday to run some "taster sessions" and for an official opening on March 26.

"We hope the taster sessions will just enable people to come in and have a look and meet us and see what we will have to offer, and just to get used to the building," said Samara.

"Youth workers have already done a lot of outreach work by talking to youngsters on the streets and going into the schools, but the main challenge will be to get people up here and through the door."

The centre is a product of eight years' work which began with the formation of the youth development group in 1993 by concerned adults from a number of agencies in the town.

They had a vision for a drop-in centre with their target group youngsters who were disadvantaged or having difficulties in their relationships with their peers, family, school and authority.

Working with the town council and the county community education team, they opened The Zone on the seafront.

Initially it was manned by volunteers, but then secured a lottery grant for three years to fund two part-time youth workers to help open the centre five sessions a week to provide information and support services for teens and early twenties.

A second lottery grant of £182,000 has enabled Level2 to be set up, and to employ a full-time youth worker, two 15-hour workers, two 7.5-hour workers and admin support.

Samara said a lot had been learned from the pilot youth project The Zone, in particular youngsters' needs and more research had been done since.

"Their main need is for somewhere to meet, somewhere safe. They wanted somewhere larger and in a central location – not the seafront," she said.

The centre will aim to help anyone from ten years old to 24, but the core target age will be 13s to 19s.

In addition to the coffee bar and areas to sit and relax and socialise, the centre will feature rooms where counselling can take place and youngsters can discuss their problems in private with the youth workers, medical room, an arts and work room, and an IT suite.

It will open from 9.30am until 9.30pm. It is planned to use part of the centre in the mornings to run part-time training courses as part of a partnership with Suffolk College, with a creche for mums.

Support for the youngsters will include dealing with a range of teenage problems, including drugs, alcohol, bullying, school troubles, and sexual health. Felixstowe has one of the highest rates for teenage pregnancies and youth workers will help youngsters deal with this issue.

They will also give life skills training, helping youngsters to look after themselves.

One of the big worries for the project is what will happen when the lottery cash runs out in three year's time and they have enlisted the help of Euro MP Richard Howitt, who is investigating various possible funding sources.

"There is a lot of work which is going to be done here at the centre which could qualify for European funding and I will be assisting the group in identifying those funds and helping them with applications," he said.

"I think it is an excellent project and it will provide invaluable support for young people. After all it has been developed in response to things they say they need.

"Thousands of ten to 24 year olds in Felixstowe stand to benefit. I will be exploring all funding possibilities to secure the centre's future and working closely with the project workers and Suffolk County Council to this end."