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Friday, 17 August 2012

Woman of inspiration gives Levi, 15, the chance to change

Evening Standard

Teenager tells Maxine Frith how a groundbreaking family project rescued him from a grim future

Passionate: Donna Sinclair has helped youths such as Levi Wright of Camberwell (pictured) through the Options 4 Change scheme

Maxine Frith

17 August 2012

Levi Wright’s education looked as if it was already over before most people had started secondary school. The 15-year-old from Camberwell has barely been in school since the age of 11 when, with a troubled home life, he was taken into care and moved between eight foster homes in 10 months alone, from London to Birmingham.

His grandmother Beverley Baxter, 62, was beginning to despair; he was already getting into trouble with the police, mostly for petty theft, but the crimes were beginning to escalate, and he was caught with someone who had a knife. In Camberwell, where he now lives with his grandmother, Levi’s future looked grim but depressingly common.

Then Donna Sinclair and her project Options 4 Change stepped in, and suddenly things seem a lot brighter.

After years outside the education system he has just been accepted into Lambeth College, and is looking forward to his introduction day next week. “I’m going to be studying maths and English and law — I want to be a lawyer,” he said confidently. “I want to do GCSEs and A-levels and go to university.”

It’s a remarkable turnaround for a youth who until recently was in danger of becoming another statistic on police and court files.

Mrs Baxter said: “He’s a bright boy but he had a really difficult time when he was younger. Because he moved around so much in foster care he could never stay in one school. Then when he came back to live with me he went to school, but he’d already missed so much and after a few weeks they said he had a problem with his teacher and he was sent to a pupil referral unit.

“They promised me he’d be learning maths and English but they weren’t teaching him anything. Then they said he was learning catering — it was just cooking. He wasn’t going because he wasn’t learning anything, and some days he would just sit in the house, staring into space, looking so sad.

“Options 4 Change and Donna have got him back into school and that’s made me so happy. Without them I don’t know where we’d be by now.”

Options 4 Change started in 2005 and has developed a reputation for being prepared to work with some of the most difficult-to-reach young people on the margins of society. The charity has now been awarded £19,964 by the Evening Standard’s Dispossessed campaign to fund a new Turnaround Project, which involves an intervention course for 15 young men aged 13 to 19.

The intensive course will focus on youths who have been referred by Lambeth’s Coldharbour Safer Neighbourhoods team and are at risk of offending or falling into gang culture.

The project aims to work with the whole family: the teenagers will be given education and career advice, help with preparing CVs and personal development classes, while outreach workers will liaise with relatives, visit their homes and offer advice on a range of issues, from social to financial. The 16-week course will finish with a 48-hour residential trip which parents will be invited to attend. Local police have already drawn up a long list of teenagers they believe could be helped by the scheme.

As she bustles around the Options 4 Change offices in Streatham, Ms Sinclair is passionate about her work and endlessly patient with the young men already involved in the project, who are deeply mistrustful of anyone in authority.

She said: “We’re not saying there is a magic wand or a quick-fix solution or an instant happy ending to these boys. It can be very hard work. Sometimes it really is a massive achievement just to get them to walk through the doors of this office and sit and listen to us for 10 minutes. Some of these people have never had anyone help them before, never had someone be on their side. You have to win their trust before you can do anything.

“We consider it a big success if we can get them back into school, doing GCSEs or an apprenticeship, because these are people who before have had absolutely no expectations of the future, of getting a job, or even if they’re going to be alive. Some don’t go to school because they’re worried they’re going to get attacked just getting on the bus. We had one guy a few months ago who was chased and stabbed in the street. He’s OK now, but that’s the kind of life we’re dealing with.”

The project focuses on getting teen-agers like Levi back into training and education. They are taught IT skills, letter-writing and interview techniques, while Ms Sinclair advocates vigorously on their behalf with social services, schools and police to get them back on track and into work. She was inspired to set up the charity after managing a homelessness hostel and seeing how many boys and young men would turn up each day with nowhere to live, no support, and no means of getting back into education after being excluded from school.

Ms Sinclair, who lives in the area, says she “doesn’t use the word gangs”, partly because many of the teenagers involved in the scheme may not be part of a formal gang. However, many of those she helps already have a long list of criminal convictions for theft, assault and drug dealing.

They also feel deeply excluded by society. Levi said: “I get stopped and searched sometimes three times a day by the police even when I’m not doing anything wrong. You get hassled all the time. It’s really annoying. They treat you like rubbish.” Another Options 4 Change participant, Anthony Lewis, 19, from Lambeth, lights up when he talks to — and about — Ms Sinclair.

“She’s great — she listens and she doesn’t make judgments about you,” he said. “I like coming here. I didn’t have anything to do before. I just left school and that was it. Now I want to get an apprenticeship as a painter and decorator.”

As with so many of the charities being supported by the Dispossessed Fund, the underlying issue for many of the boys is self-esteem and empowerment. “We want them to feel like they’re worth the effort,” said Ms Sinclair.

“It can be tough going but we’re getting there.” And as Levi Wright prepares for his first full-time schooling in four years, the impact the project can have is clearly evident.

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