Youth Trust News

Keeping youngsters safe on the streets

Martin Macfarlane and fellow detached youth worker Jackie Fisher

Let’s be honest: most of us like to spend our Friday evenings kicking off our shoes and opening a cheeky bottle of something. Martin Macfarlane is an IT professional in his day job but every Friday night he is out around Douglas – not partying but dealing with the sort of problems we might prefer to sweep under the carpet . . .

It’s not often you get the chance to take a real community hero for a lovely lunch. So here we are at Samphire, on the North Quay, with a dish of their home-made bread and cream cheese in front of us and there’s just one problem, Martin is so busy telling me about the work he is so passionate about that he is quite forgetting to eat.

‘I never usually get a chance to talk about this stuff,’ he tells me.

‘This stuff’ is his Friday night role as a detached youth worker for the Department of Education and Children – ‘detached’ meaning that he doesn’t sit in a cosy office but is out and about, coming into contact with youngsters who are hanging out on the streets, in parks, cafés and glens, to provide a friendly face and be there to help with anything they wish to talk about – be it education, life, drink or drugs and to promote what he calls ‘pro-social’ behaviours.

He tells me: ‘It is totally varied – you never know what you’re going to come across.

‘We go out in two teams of two: one team will drive around the outskirts of Douglas and Onchan, the other team will walk around the inner area and at that point we’re just getting a feel for what’s happening, who’s out and about, and whether there’s any large gatherings anywhere.

‘What we’re most concerned about is how much alcohol is out on the streets and what state the young people are planning to be in later on.

Martin Macfarlane

‘Or it could be drugs, which is more common nowadays – it’s slowly turning to less alcohol and more drugs, in my opinion, mostly softer drugs.

‘What we do is more for a welfare check than anything else – to make sure what they’re doing is moderately safe and to listen to any concerns they have.

‘Unless it’s a serious matter where we have a duty of care we wouldn’t intervene. We wouldn’t take their alcohol away because we haven’t got the powers to do that but we can try to educate and inform.’

‘Every now and then we come across someone who is way beyond their means with alcohol, to the point of needing medical attention. There have been some instances of injuries, too: we’re always equipped with first aid materials and certainly put our training into practice.’

If the team are concerned about the mental or physical condition of a young person, it’s then about getting them to a place of safety, which might mean taking them home, calling an ambulance or, as a last resort, calling the police.

And apparently, the biggest fear that young people have in this situation is not the police but their parents finding out what they have been up to. Between mouthfuls of the very delicious Spicy Butternut Squash soup, Martin recalls one incident which illustrates this only too well: 

‘One child we had a concern with was an 11-year-old who was drunk at a park. He was with an older group who were very hostile to us. ‘He initially ran away and got halfway up the hill when he was completely out of breath because of his bad asthma.

‘Luckily enough we caught up to him and tried to explain about his health and that, especially having asthma, he was a big risk at that time but his biggest worry was his parents finding out.

‘That’s why he ran away. We had to escort him home because if we’d let him go out of sight he could have ended up anywhere. The lad was in tears walking up to his parents’ house: the whole way home he was begging us not to speak to his parents and that’s quite hard for us but his parents needed to know. He might have gone to bed, rolled over and choked on his vomit. ‘He must be about school leavers’ age now and I’m sure he’s turned out OK – we’ve not seen him out on the streets again anyway.’

There is a small footnote to this story: Martin and the team occasionally go around the local schools, talking to youths during lunchtime and, whilst in one school, they have seen this youngster sniggering about them with his friends:

‘It became a big story for him but that’s OK. Even if he’s laughing about us, he’s getting the story to his peers so that they know we wouldn’t walk away from them [if they’re in a bad way]. They’re learning informally about the ways of the world and staying safe,’ Martin maintains.

We have both chosen the pea and mint risotto for our main course and, when it arrives, I ask him whether he ever finds it scary out on the streets, especially given that he is the youngest in the team at just 28, and that his colleagues – Jackie Fisher, Janette Facey and Jo White –are all female.

‘Five years or so ago it used to be quite violent out there – every Friday night we could be breaking up fights and those situations were quite scary with some being vicious but that’s calmed down in recent years.

‘And we all work so well together – we can walk into a situation and look at each other and just know how to react because we’ve done it so many times and we’ve got the trust in each other.’

One occasion he recalls was, he admits, ‘a bit overwhelming’:

‘I remember last summer there was a particular field that was quite renowned for young people having parties. It was the end of the GCSE exams and when we arrived, there must have been 200-plus young people in this field – they were everywhere and it was pitch black.

‘The sheer volume made it a bit overwhelming trying to work out whether anybody was in danger. Luckily we knew quite a few of the group which helps, especially with the more vocal young people, if others see we’re accepted.

‘There was one particular girl who was following us up the hill: she’d already had a couple of drinks which came to our attention when she tried to climb over a barbed wire fence and got her hair tangled!

‘Two of the team were trying to untangle her hair whilst another young person was flat out on the floor not responding so we had to check on them.’

Martin smiles as he adds: ‘Every year we get new young people coming on to the streets and they all think what they’re doing is a brand new concept, a brand new idea.

‘They say to us: “How did you lot know we’d be here?”

‘They’re always amazed that wherever they have their party we know where they are – we know every little nook and cranny around Douglas.’

And he adds that it is not just the darker things that they see when they are out and about:

‘When you’ve had a really bad night of seeing such a negative side – aggression and bad behaviour – it’s good when you then come across a park where young people are playing football and they’re telling you how well their club is doing. It’s good to get that balance back and see things in perspective.’

Martin was just 18 when he signed up to the youth service but he’s been involved since he was a child because his dad Andy, better known as Sinbad, used to run the basement in Douglas Youth Club on a Friday and Saturday night.

When his father decided to retire from youth work, Martin found himself taking over the club before moving to ‘detached’.

His current Friday night forays are by no means his only way of helping young people on the island. He is also chairman of Kenyon’s Youth Café, a charity in Onchan which has been fighting for a number of years to hold on to its dedicated premises in the heart of the village.

Kenyon’s is a drop-in centre which gives young people a chance to meet three nights a week during term-time to relax, chat with friends and talk to the youth workers.

‘It’s a little project that does big work in the community and with some vulnerable young people and families but it’s not attractive enough for the big corporates to support so we struggle for funding,’ says Martin.

One corporate who has supported the charity is telecoms company, Sure. Marketing manager Sarah Jarvis came to see the café and immediately offered to provide them with broadband and iPads.

Martin says: ‘It made me realise that there are people out there who are listening. It’s a simple thing but it’s made a big impact and completely changed the dynamics at Kenyon’s.

‘We used to get some disruptive behaviour – mostly cushion fights – but as soon as we got broadband everything changed.

‘Now they’re either playing games on iPads or chatting to each other – though admittedly there is still the occasional cushion fight!’

One of the ways Kenyon’s plays a role in the community was illustrated a few months ago when there was some minor anti-social behaviour – mostly bins being pushed over – in the village.

A word in the ear of a few of the 40-plus youngsters who go to the café and it was over as soon as it had begun.

When Martin became chairman of the charity, at just 25, he had no idea how a charity should be run but he did have the very pressing problem of Kenyon’s being in danger of losing its premises, which Onchan Commissioners wished to sell.

He recalls: ‘I knew I had to show some sort of leadership but I had no idea how to bring a constructive argument against a local authority.

‘I began by understanding just what this place means to young people and started writing letters to defend the place and educate the board of commissioners.

‘People often see it as simply somewhere for young people to hang out but there’s so much more that goes on behind the scenes – Kenyon’s has a mechanism that works and any change needs to be carefully considered to preserve the effectiveness.

‘I was writing letters to the commissioners and putting arguments to them but it got to the stage, a year down the line, when they stopped responding – I just felt totally ignored.’

Martin was not to be deterred by this: he started going to board meetings, sitting in the public gallery and then, in May he decided to stand at the local authority by-elections and got in.

He is now an Onchan Commissioner and he says: ‘Being elected means I can champion issues for the community and indeed the voices of young people at the board room table and ensure pressing matters and opinions are heard.’ 

Last year he set up another charity, Youth Trust, which aims to improve the lives of young people in the island. The first project was a bouncy vibrant website, youth.im, for young people which provides information on local activities and events, along with information on some serious issues, a place where they can get help and advice and find the right people to talk to if they need to.

The charity gives young people the chance to voice their opinions on topical issues and concerns that matter to them.

Reflecting on all his many roles: youth worker, charity chairman, Onchan Commissioner and IT professional, Martin smiles, and says: ‘Sometimes I stop and wonder to myself – how has all this happened?’

Read more at: iomtoday.co.im