Andy Jefferson asks: how do we protect our young people from those who would exploit them?
The challenge of tackling exploitation can seem daunting. When we hear stories of young people being groomed or taken advantage of in some way, it can make our stomachs turn. And, as a youth worker, it can be heart-breaking to discover that someone who you work with has been caught up in something so evil.
Over the last four years, I have been involved in a partnership of youth workers working to build resilience and self-esteem amongst vulnerable young people in Oxford, collaborating with Viva and its Doorsteps network. Instead of focusing on the big issue of exploitation, we have started by focusing on the root causes that can lead to young people being vulnerable.
Sarah was identified by her school as a young person who was potentially vulnerable, aged 14. She came across as a young person lacking in confidence, who often put herself down and rarely raised her voice in group settings. She has been involved in our Find Your Fire project for the past two years.
This project combines two main elements: group work aimed at developing skills and confidence culminating in a peer education project and targeted sessions on a variety of topics including online safety, mental health, alcohol awareness, nutrition and a session on spotting the signs of unhealthy relationships. Added to this, the young people gain a vocational qualification equivalent to half a GSCE. With the support of the team of youth workers, Sarah has thrived in this environment.
She now enjoys leading other young people with confidence and is a different person from the shy girl who started with us two years ago. She combines this newfound confidence with a caring and compassionate side when she recognises that it is needed. She has now taken on our first role as youth support worker, adding an important link between the youth workers and the young people.
Sarah’s story is one of many that gives me hope. Hope that if we can help young people find a passion and a purpose, it can build their resilience and help them navigate the sometimes perilous world of adolescence.
Andy Jefferson is a Find Your Fire youth worker and Youth Leader of St Matthew’s and St Luke’s Churches in Oxford
Find out more about this work at viva.org/doorsteps
This article first appeared in Life magazine, issue 10
Photo credit: Brooke Cagle