Volume 4 Number 10
Learning Through Serving
01 November 1991

Kenneth Noble visits a scheme, inspired by the Prince of Wales, that is helping young British people find a sense of purpose in life.

Once again 'riots in British cities have turned the spotlight on young people -particularly those who are angry, unemployed and unfulfilled. The Community Venture, launched on Prince Charles' initiative in 1985, aims to do something about the roots of this problem by helping young people find self-esteem and a desire to serve the community.

The Birmingham Community Venture, which started in 1987, is one of eight schemes operating in such diverse areas as Strathclyde, Cornwall and South Wales. The Birmingham scheme is based in converted laboratories of a former school in Ladywood, a depressed inner-city district.

Each programme lasts 10 months. New `teams' of 18- to 24-year-olds start at roughly four-month intervals, Team 14 being the latest. The scheme, says Jim Purvis, the former Fleet Air Arm pilot who is Birmingham Project Director, `is letting loose the abilities people have'.

Long-term unemployed
Each team of 12-15 people is made up of as great a mixture of races, abilities and backgrounds as possible. The ideal team includes a couple of university graduates, two long-term unemployed, two with disabilities or other special needs and one or two who have been in trouble with the police. Participants receive a modest allowance.

It soon becomes clear that the course of team-life doesn't always run smooth. A venturer who suddenly disappeared from Team 14 a week ago phones up and asks to rejoin. Purvis decides to see what the rest of the team think. Clearly much responsibility is put on the venturers themselves. Discussion and honesty within the team are encouraged.

The truant's team, still only eight weeks into their course, are full of enthusiasm. The 13 I meet are all eager to make their points. One girl is excited about the sports leadership course they've just completed. This included work in a young offenders' centre. `We met Aston Moore, the Commonwealth triple-jump champion,' chips in another. A third was impressed by what they saw of the West Midlands Fire Service on a three-week leadership-training course they did there.

Although most young people who take part in the course go on to find jobs, it is not vocational, stresses Purvis' deputy, Graham Smith. It concentrates on personal development and confidence building.

Smith first got involved in the Community Venture when he became a team leader for two years. He carries on with the work for the great personal satisfaction it gives him. `You wouldn't do this job for the wages,' he says. Funding is, in fact, a constant struggle. The Prince's Trust puts in a regular amount but most of the funds have to be raised by a local committee. `I have to do a good deal of scrounging,' adds Purvis with a smile.

Smith claims that about 90 per cent of the venturers have `changed positively' through the course. He tells of one young man `who was as near to being locked up as you ever can be, although he was in a job. He changed his whole career from machine work in a factory to full-time care work. He's completely dissociated himself from any type of criminal activity.'

To what does he attribute such successes? `It's the people themselves that do it,' he says, `working within a team and going out and working with sections of the community that they haven't ever been in contact with before.'

Much depends on the personality of the team leader, he adds. Adrian Keir is a police constable seconded by his force to take charge of Team 12. It started last January and is due to finish this November. Despite his ten years in the police, he doesn't believe in laying down the law. `I just say, "I think that. What do you think?" '

He talks with shrewdness, and not a little pride, about his team-members, the way they have developed and some of the character flaws which they are overcoming. However, the team has had its problems - two trouble-makers had to be sacked. One girl, still on the team, has convictions for assaulting police. `On paper, I wouldn't have got on with her,' he says. `But when half the team decided not to speak to me, she did. And she's black.' This was a help when some of the black people on the team accused him of being racist.

The Team 12 members I talk with are refreshingly frank. Martin Andrews, a muscular 18-year-old, left school in June last year with four A-levels. After working in a bar for a while he decided he didn't want to go to college. He applied to join the Birmingham Community Venture. He says, `This course is me finding out about myself. The bar taught me to mature and this has taken it a step further.' The best part of the course was working at Sandpipers, a holiday centre for the physically handicapped in Southport. He shows me an entry in his diary: `Sandpipers is the sort of place that changes your life.' He's going back to help there next weekend on his own initiative.

Joanne Grice left a job at Birmingham County Court to join the team. `I wanted a challenge and to experience new things, to work helping people in the community.' She's enjoyed most of it, saying she has learned not to take people on face value -`When we were working with the disabled in Southport we got to know them for who they were and not because they were stuck.'

She admits that she found the team's problems difficult - `I couldn't stand all the slanging matches and the arguments that went on, but it also taught us that you've got to communicate with each other more.' The Venture has given her `a lot more confidence' to aim for the teaching career that she wanted to do `quite a few years ago'.

Excited as Jim Purvis is about the Community Venture, he admits that it is open to the criticism that, with a country-wide total to date of 1,000 participants, it deals with too few people. But he points out that an ambitious new scheme has been launched which aims to involve more young people in a three-month programme.

Though the Community Venture can only involve a comparatively small number of young people, it undoubtedly adds weight to Prince Charles' original conviction that everyone should have the opportunity at one stage in their lives to make a contribution to the community.