Youth work responses to the pandemic: the news from Chilypep

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Today we are delighted to post a reflective response from Marie Ellis at Chilypep in Sheffield on their organisation’s experience of and response to the pandemic. It is particularly enlightening to read about the issues young people have raised with them. We welcome posts on your response to the pandemic – you can choose whether to name your organisation or remain anonymous.

Want to discuss anything in this or other posts from our website? Go to our new facebook page! To accompany our established Facebook group (which – as we recently discussed – we think has become the place for wider discussions on anything related to pluralist youth work), our new page is just getting off the ground. We hope it will become a space for discussion and debate around open youth work.

Chilypep – Some youth work responses to the pandemic

As a nationally registered youth empowerment charity, Chilypep works to improve the lives of children and young people in Sheffield (where it is based) and now in Barnsley. It seeks to do this by promoting and protecting their rights and supporting them in creating effective campaigns on policies and services which most affect them. Several of the groups are focused particularly on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of 14 – 25-year olds and on developing awareness campaigns to shape and increase the responsiveness of the mental health services they use.

Innovating for ‘a new normal’

Since March 23rd, the whole Chilypep team have been working from home – for most a new and hard-hitting reality. Many of us have children, some elderly parents and – probably most significantly for most – we have always just assumed that our work would be face to face in weekly groups and 1-2-1 sessions. Though social media have been part of our norm, these have been used mainly to promote sessions and events. We were thus left with the fundamental and bewildering question: ‘How in this crisis can we be effective if our safe-space tools are removed from us?’

Like so many other youth workers, the team responded with lightening speed by, as far as resources allowed, transferring all possible work to online platforms and social media. Drawing on their understanding of the finer workings of CANVA Pro, Instagram, Facebook Live, Tik Tok, Twitter, Zoom, etc, within seven days of lockdown a comprehensive online schedule of creative and interactive activities had been put in place.…:

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In addition to this implementation by the staff team, as ever, we have been working hard with young people to co-produce up-to-date responses. The young people we work with continue to work alongside us to help share positive and creative self-help activities.

Young people from across our groups in Sheffield and Barnsley have put together a list of helpful recommendations in relation to isolation and the youth steering group for our new Act For Change funded project are in the process of creating a “Social Action at Home” toolkit”.

Considering #Kindness Matters and #Mental Health Awareness Week we hope that this sharing can help others but also demonstrate the kindness of those with whom we work. By continuing to come together, supporting each other, sharing helpful tips and strategies the young people of Chilypep wish to create a kind and mental health friendly community.

These isolation recommendations will be added to Chilypep’s Youth Mental Health First Aid Kit but also to our first ever edition of the Chilypep Zine, a new magazine initiative on the horizon.

What young people have been telling us about their pressures

By offering participative sessions like these not only has Chilypep encouraged young people to stay engaged. In planned ways it has been able, too, to address the pressing issues they are currently facing – many identified more broadly in NYA’s recent ‘Out of Sight’[1] report and in the research of the National Youth Trends project ‘Take the Temperature’.[2]. For Chilypep young people these have included and sometimes exacerbated ones which were already challenging in their existing life situations as well as ones prompted specifically by the COVID crisis and the lockdown.

Particularly striking here have been the struggles of the young people involved in Chilypep’s refugee, asylum seekers and new arrivals groups. Facing both language barriers and barriers to accessing information in their own language, they and their parents have often found it difficult to make full use of online platforms and other digital forms of communication. Because often, too, they are living in poor and overcrowded housing, the lockdown has meant they have had to be outdoors much more – something which can be contrary to cultural norms which assume time spent in a large family group.

Other telling feedback has come from the broader range of young people Chilypep is working with.

  • Some have found themselves having to take on care roles within their families, including doing home schooling for younger siblings.
  • With some working in high risk services, some have had relatives and friends who have become ill or died.
  • The young people with disabilities are feeling even more isolated than usual, with those with conditions such as ADHD or behavioural difficulties (together, too, with their parents and carers) finding lockdown especially hard.
  • As well as expressing serious concerns about the effects on their education and prospects, some have revealed broader worries about how they will reconnect with the world and each other when the lockdown is over.
  • Young people living in supported accommodation or local authority care have reported feeling particularly isolated and lockdown has exacerbated negative feelings around being apart from friends and family”
  • ‘Home’ is not a ‘safe place’ for many women and children and the language around “stay home, stay safe” is a conflicting and difficult message.[3]

Particularly clearly and strongly, young people across the board have been telling us that they are finding the lack of direct contact with their friends, family and social connections the hardest thing to cope with, and that this is seriously affecting their mental health and wellbeing. Significantly, too, this has been mirrored in the feelings of a team of workers who, although used to the voluntary sector norm of ‘giving everything and more’, have been faced with a new set of personal challenges – of self-care, concern for family and friends, bereavement, full-time parenting and the pressure of ‘home schooling’. The organisational response to these unprecedented circumstances has been overwhelming, not just with support but also with constant reassurances that ‘good enough is good enough’ and that on some days it will be ok not to be ok.

Any yet – some positives

With the need removed for a physical presence in Chilypep groups and activities, one key gain has been that online meetings have enabled more young people to get involved, including some from around the UK and further afield. Not only has this increased the capacity and the opportunity to offer more 1-2-1 support. As the pressure to meet face-to-face has been replaced by the choice of just messaging or ‘chatting’, contact with some harder-to-reach young people has also increased.

At some point we will all hopefully be able to get back to the face-to-face personalised ways of working which are at the heart of a practice like youth work. Meanwhile – indeed in addition – Chilypep is now working to expand its website into a virtual ‘Chilypep Connections Hub’: an online resource that will allow young people a ‘one stop’ place to find and engage with help, activity, interaction, advocacy and training. This will complement what is already available to young people in South Yorkshire whilst trying to pull together on one site what can be offered more widely. The lockdown and forced remote contact have enabled us to see our online capacity in a whole new way. It does not, and will not replace the face to face, but it will complement it and without doubt, some of our newfound creativity will be here to stay.

[1] Available at https://nya.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Out-of-Sight-COVID-19-report-Web-version.pdf

[2] Available at https://www.beatfreeksyouthtrends.com/take-the-temperature

[3] https://www.womensaid.org.uk/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-women-and-children-experiencing-domestic-abuse-and-the-life-saving-services-that-support-them/

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