Robert Bullard The Guardian, Wednesday April 9 2008
Studley, in Warwickshire, is a village that on the surface has no shortage of facilities for young people; there are sports clubs, youth clubs and a leisure centre. But many local teenagers complained that the prices were too high, leaving them with little choice but to hang around the streets. Until recently, many villagers regarded them as typical of modern youngsters: hanging around and probably using bad language and being disruptive. But all that changed when a new project, pioneered by Stratford-on-Avon district council, attempted to bridge the generation gap between young and old.
Joanne Rooke, the council’s community engagement officer, says young people in rural areas can get drawn into antisocial behaviour because there is often little for them to do, which is compounded by a lack of trust between younger and older generations. She spearheaded the first phase of the intergenerational scheme in autumn 2006 with a cookery project, bringing together a group of 14 boys and older men.
“I was a bit apprehensive,” admits 85-year-old Arthur Davis. “We were in our corner and they in theirs. But the chef got us going, and when we started making things people really opened up.” Rooke says: “Both sides were scared of coming together, but week by week you could see their body language change. Over an eight-week period, the relations between them were transformed.”
The project was such a success that more projects encouraging contact between older residents and young people followed – including dancing competitions, quiz nights and health and beauty sessions. “The projects have broken down the barriers and prevent suspicion,” says Davis. “I no longer feel separate from [young people] as I used to.” Youth worker Prince Kaba agrees, pointing out that the “mistrust” that existed before the scheme has gone. “The scheme has bridged the gap,” he says. “Relationships and respect have developed out of it. They now have an understanding of one another.”
The council also brought together girls from the local grammar school and female sheltered accommodation residents. As part of the girls’ citizenship lessons, the group meet on Wednesday afternoons. They take part in practical activities such as flower arranging, or talk about the adults’ life experiences. The girls found the older women were interested in their career choices. “They [the ladies] were really interested in knowing what we wanted to do at university and as a career,” says 16-year-old Rosie Tasker. “There had been no options for some of them, getting married at 18.”
The project’s popularity has encouraged other organisations to get involved, Rooke says, including older people’s groups and the youth information and training service, Connexions. But the scheme’s benefits are not just being felt by those directly involved in the project – antisocial behaviour in the village, such as petty vandalism, fell by 23% last year, according to local police.
The second phase of the district council’s intergenerational initiative has focused on Bidford, where problems first came to a head a few years ago. With no senior youth club, a play area intended for younger children had turned into a meeting place for disaffected youngsters. Everyone knew something had to be done, says Rooke, but there were objections from villagers to young people’s requests for a youth shelter (much like a bus shelter, where young people can feel safe and be seen by the police and others).
Rooke organised a steering group, which acted like a pressure group, writing letters to the community for their support for a shelter, and she enlisted the help of the Warwickshire Reminiscence Action Project, to encourage young and older people to work together. The young people made a five-minute film of older people’s memories. “It gave them the confidence to believe that they can get things done, and made elderly people feel that they have got to meet young people’s needs,” says the reminiscence project’s founder, Mike Strophair. Beverley Fillingham, 15, says: “Old people felt stereotyped, but knew they were guilty of stereotyping as well.”
As a result of the joint working, derelict land previously allocated for development was reassigned for erecting facilities for young people. It wasn’t too close to residents’ houses but was close enough to the village for young people to feel part of the community. With help from older people, who helped prepare the evidence for a shelter, funding was secured to build a youth shelter, a graffiti wall and swings.
“It was a great example of residents supporting young people – realising that they needed somewhere to go,” Rooke says. “It has definitely changed things,” says Fillingham. “Now, when I see old people, they come over and have a chat. They want to make a difference, and know the facilities will get young people off the streets.”