Wigan Youth Zone staff exude energy and enthusiasm
Watching Wigan Youth Zone's staff at work, the most striking thing is the sheer energy and enthusiasm for helping the borough's young people.
An army in red T-shirts bustles around the place, encouraging youngsters coming through the doors to meet new people, try out things they haven’t done before and talk about any problems they are having in their lives.
It’s a role the entire 80-strong team at the Parson’s Walk venue takes extremely seriously and is at the very heart of the Youth Zone’s ethos.
It’s also one that everyone, whether they’ve been there since day one or have arrived more recently, takes immediately on board.
One of the most familiar faces to all the thousands of children who come through the door each week will be Andy Nicholls, who is head of the department for youth engagement.
His domain is the recreation area with its pool tables and other games facilities, open spaces and sofa areas for chatting and relaxing, and he and his team brim over with ideas for engaging the Youth Zone’s visitors.
He said: “In this job you have to be using your initiative every single day, coming up with different ideas that are fun for young people.
“We do games, challenges, crafts, competitions, team-building activities. We will use the height of the atrium for some volleyball-type games, we’ve got the massive snooker table that was donated and we’re looking at getting in dance mats.
“Each week we will have a theme and have to fit the activities to that and then Saturdays are a real party atmosphere. We’ll get the music guys downstairs and there will be balloons everywhere and party poppers going off.”
It’s not all fun and games, though, as the Youth Zone also helps young people cope with some of the more stressful aspects of growing up in 2018 as well as enabling them to have fun.
Andy said: “I manage the staff who run the girls room upstairs, which goes through issues like self-esteem, body image and stress. They’ve done bits of cooking in the kitchen with them and they’ve looked at things like This Girl Can.
“We’ve also got the outreach programme. We go out to places like Ince and Shakerley and we have buses bringing youngsters from the other side of the borough to the Youth Zone and then taking them home again.
“We also want to work more with the schools, both primary and secondary. We can do all sorts of things, tailoring programmes to their needs. It’s providing something different for the schools so the kids can tell we’re from the Youth Zone when we come in.
“Outreach also involves taking our boards to events like Wigan Pride, doing some advertising, signing people up and having a bit of fun at the same time.”
Much of the hiring over five years has been done by HR and office manager Lisa Potter, who joined when the place was still a building site and the offices were portable cabins. She sees her job as keeping the team happy and says she is delighted to work for the people who have been recruited for the Youth Zone.
Lisa, who came to the Youth Zone from working in education, said: “They are fantastic. It’s a pleasure coming into work because everyone gets on so well. I think that’s reflected in the numberof young people who come day after day.
“It’s really important staff are happy because when they go downstairs they have to have a smile on their faces. That’s why young people are coming here. Some have disadvantaged backgrounds and difficult home situations and they come here for a bit of freedom, so the staff has to be buzzing.
“I couldn’t say better things about our team: it is diverse and energetic. My work can be quite draining but the work here has a real fun element to it. One minute you are doing serious minutes, the next you are having your face painted by the holiday club kids, and then it’s back to the meeting preparation. All the office staff are encouraged to mingle.”
Lisa says there is also a very important element of progression, with young people starting as volunteers and going on to senior positions. One example is youth work manager Sikander Ali (known to everyone as Siky), whose first encounter with youth facilities was while he was growing up.
Siky said: “I was one of those challenging kids you see downstairs but my youth worker made a difference to me and that’s where my love of youth work began. “I did teaching for a bit but youth work was where I wanted to be.
"I worked at Bolton Lads and Girls Club and then came across to Wigan. Buying into the ethos and the passion is the reason we work here. We want to make a difference, we’re not here for the pay packet. I travel in from Blackburn every day because I’ve got so much love for the place.
“There have been so many highlights, but one for me personally was when a Youth Zone team took part in an enterprise competition and got to represent the UK in a European final in Austria. There were 51 teams from across the continent there and we got the public’s choice award. Along the way at the regional final we had beaten all the big grammar schools in Greater Manchester.”
Football officer Dave Philp has another story of a Wigan Youth Zone service user who is already going far after transferring from taking part in the activities to putting them on himself.
Dave said: “There was a young man just about to turn 18 who loved football and I spotted he was really good with the younger members.
“I got him in as a volunteer because I noticed he was a natural leader who took charge of the kids around 12 or 13 years old. He eventually got into coaching and is now a valuable member of staff. He’s going off to Los Angeles to coach in America this summer and that’s going to be a really great experience for him. I’m very jealous actually!”
Maintaining the link between Wigan Athletic and its community trust and the Youth Zone is extremely important as one of the original guiding lights behind the project was then-club chairman Dave Whelan, with Latics keen to honour his investment and vision.
As well as the homegrown nature of the youth zone the place is now attracting talent from around the region, with people drawn in by its status as a flagship facility within the charity Onside. One of the most recent recruits is junior activities and holiday club manager Louise Wright, who came a couple of months ago after accruing a wealth of experience helping young people and families in settings ranging from prisons and women’s refuges to housing associations and colleges.
She spoke of how this helps her work in Wigan and of what drew her to the youth zone. Louise said: “I came to Wigan Youth Zone to have a look round soon after it opened and was just in awe of the facilities, so when the chance came to get involved I jumped at it.
“I’ve got experience of helping families in crisis and hopefully that will help us spot early those people who might need intervention and support. We can also use play to help children, giving them those transferable skills to help them cope with the challenges of everyday life.
“We’re changing the way we offer activities and we’re putting a lot of resources into the holiday. I just ran my first one at Easter and it was themed Madness and Mayhem. It was really high-energy and we were challenging young people while having a lot of fun. We all went home pretty exhausted but it was a lot of fun.
“I’m now just looking forward to getting to know the families in this area and showing people what we’ve got to offer. A lot of people in Wigan still don’t know about the youth zone and we want to really embed ourselves right into the community.”