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Reasons to be cheerful (2016)

In this week’s blog (and the last of 2016), Jamie Mercer from Youth Focus: North East reflects on the last 12 months and asks are there reasons to be cheerful this year?

Before you continue reading, this article is best enjoyed by clicking play on the following video:

I think we can all agree that 2016 has been an eventful year to say the least. We’ve seen Britain choose to pull out of the European Union, we’ve seen a reality TV star become President-elect of the United States of America, and a slew of beloved celebrities have been lost (Alan Rickman and Prince being two that especially hurt!).

But it’s not all bad, I promise. At Youth Focus: North East we’re taking the festive period to ponder and reflect on our work over the last 12 months to see if there are reasons to be cheerful this year.

January – The first month of the New Year was Youth Focus: North East’s 27th birthday! The team supported young people to hold a stand at Mental Health Awareness Day, hosted by Northumbria University. We spoke to loads of people about our work on supporting mental health awareness and emotional wellbeing. January also saw the launch of An Apprentice’s Tale: A Story of the North East, a mobile game about some of the region’s famous inventors and innovators.

February – Four of the Young Commissioners gave a presentation at the launch of the Expanding Minds Improving Lives project to explain why young people wanted to become Young Commissioners, what the role of the Young Commissioner was and provided a few key examples of the changes needed that needed to be made in mental health services and support. The presentation concluded with an insight into the very personal experience of a young person living with a mental health condition, where support had made a difference and some thoughts on what should be improved.

March – We threw an official office launch party and invited friends and friends-to-be to see the new office (despite moving in August 2015!) and to learn about the work we are doing in collaboration with young people and partners. March also saw us continue our work with the National Deaf Children’s Society as we helped deliver an evaluation session with the group and worked out what went well and what could be improved as well as putting some next steps in place.

April – The Wellbeing Challenges, funded by the Wellesley Trust, were truly underway at Richardson Dees Park this month with thousands of attendees taking advantage of the glorious weather and the range of activities devised by Wallsend Boys and Girls Club and Age UK North Tyneside. Bouncy Castles, football tournaments, raffles, prizes, bicycles repair and maintenance, a fitness walk, an Easter Egg Hunt and more was available for people to enjoy for free. Not to mention the queue of hundreds eagerly waiting for face-painting!

May – This is when our politics work around the EU Referendum really ramped up. My Referendum held a series of drop-in sessions to schools and youth groups around the North East and we held Pizza and Politics events north and south of the region to explore people’s views, get some guests speakers from leave and remain, and to get the debate raring. We also held two hustings events simultaneously in Gateshead at BALTIC and in Stockton at the Arc. A first for our charity, we live-streamed both events over Facebook encouraging people from further afield or who couldn’t make it in-person to join in and had two different panels chock full of leavers, remainers, and neutrals. This wasn’t about picking or promoting a side, this was about getting young people involved in the debate.

June – We commissioned a purpose-built app to track how young people were planning on voting in the EU Referendum. We opened this up to 16- and 17-year-olds too, as the Scottish Referendum was open to 16+ voters. We spoke with over a thousand of our region’s young people aged 16-25 and released the results the day after the referendum.

July – Loneliness and Isolation workshops were high up on the agenda in July and held consultation workshops with young people about their experiences. This work was funded by the Co-operative Foundation (more on that later!). Talent Match Champions organised the OpportUNITY event, bringing together young people and employers. The aim of the day was to learn more about each other’s expectations around employment and discuss how to get more young people into work. Talent Match is funded by the Big Lottery Fund and managed in the North East by Wise Group. Heaton Manor School also completed their intergenerational Wellbeing Challenge event bringing older residents from the area into the school for entertainment and food provided by the young people involved. We also dished out v50 and v100 awards to some of our very committed volunteers!

August – Our Summer was spent working with young people on their NCS experiences in Gateshead and Northumberland, working closely with Catch-22 to support volunteer groups with their social action journeys. This involved work with a group who wanted to raise awareness and money for the Children’s Heart Unit Fund and another group who raised money for Bill Quay Farm. In all we delivered Young Changers NE positive action workshops to over 400 young people this summer! August also saw our Teesside staff move into their own office space at the Cadcam Centre!

September – Youth Focus: North East took the Talent Match North East Young Person’s Steering Group away to the Scottish Borders to analyse the evidence of the Young Evaluators programme and plan new areas of work for 2017 and beyond. Our Teesside crew were hard at work delivering Wellbeing Challenges south of the region, including this one held in partnership with Cleveland Volunteer Police Cadets ran by Safe in Tees Valley.

October – As Autumn got into full swing, Youth Focus: North East was named Regional Impact Network Lead for the North East. We joined 11 other organisations across the country in the network to increase meaningful evaluation and impact measurement, which helps to explain the nature of effective work with young people.

November – Winter was coming but it didn’t stop us! We continued our work with Newcastle University School of Law’s Street Law Ambassadors project, delivering workshops to students around youth participation and engagement, planning sessions, and evaluation. This culminated in the Ambassadors delivering their own sessions to some of our young volunteers to get feedback on their progress (spoiler alert: They were great!). November also saw us host a discussion event around the importance of political education and the role that youth work (and youth workers) have to play. We were also granted funding from the Co-operative Foundation to take our loneliness project to the next stage and we’re excited to see what 2017 has in store in this increasingly major issue. In Stillington, a group of young people were supported by Youth Focus: North East to plan a Christmas event to be held in December.

December – As sure as the dawn, December brought with it the PoSBOs 2016 – our annual awards event for young people in the North East. Held at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, we gave out eight awards and 19 certificates to individuals and groups of young people who have been doing fantastic work over the last 12 months. That means in the last seven years of PoSBOs we’ve awarded 50 PoSBOs and had over 1,000 guests! Young people in the North East are doing incredible work for their communities. Thanks to our award sponsors (Northern TUC, Rotary Club of Newcastle upon Tyne West, and the Key), to our fantastic host Hal Branson, and to our talented PoSBO Steering Group who, along with staff at Youth Focus: North East, helped pull the whole thing together.

Looking back over some of the highlights from throughout the year (a full list would be far too exhausting!) we hope that our work with young people in our region has given readers some reasons to be cheerful, and to reflect on your own work with young people you engage with. We are proud to be an organisation that tackles a range of issues facing young people, but we also realise there is still a lot of work to be done.

So here’s to 2017. To continued hard work to tackle youth inequalities, to endure to promote youth voice, and to work towards improving the lives of young people across the country. Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from all of us at Youth Focus: North East.

Jamie Mercer, Youth Focus: North East

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