Interview A Young Leader

Last Friday was extremely stressful. I had impending exams, work for seminars that were still going on and that day was the day of production for the Uni newspaper. The day had been pushed forwards to Friday because the usual weekend session was too close to exams for the rest of the team on the newspaper. Anyway, all through the week I had been desperately trying to get in contact with a Young Leader. Our newspaper edition was Olympic themed and I had been trying to get in contact with people my age who have spent the last two years of their lives carrying out workshops and holding events in order to improve their prospects for the future, while helping to bring some happiness  – with a dash of Olympic spirit –  into the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves.

I was getting nowhere. No answered texts and absolutely no response over Facebook. So frustrating. My editor was getting extremely stressed and I was certainly feeling it. The Lord was watching over me that day, because right at the last minute I received an email from my editor telling me that someone she had contacted weeks ago had finally gotten a hold of her and had given her the number of a Young Leader from West London called Fran. Francesca Strange – a brilliant name. I chatted with her over the phone and she was just lovely. Below is the interview I carried out!

From Stadium to Street

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“Obviously the Olympics is about sport but not everyone likes sport so we also tried to do other kinds of projects”. Before talking to Francesca Strange, I thought the Olympics was just about sport. I never realised the remarkable number of projects and opportunities that have been organised in line with the Olympics to benefit communities and individuals across the country. This is exactly the purpose of the Young Leaders Programme.

Scanning the information online, it is clear to see that this programme is designed to make positive changes to young people’s lives and their communities, culminating in them taking a high-profile role during the Olympic games. But I didn’t really know what exactly these people were doing for what is ultimately a large chunk of their young lives: two years. Getting hold of one of the Young Leaders was like trying to find the end of the rainbow – virtually impossible – but eventually I got through to Fran, who is an 18 year-old Young Leader working as part of the group in West London, but based in Guildford.

“There are 100 Young Leaders who were selected back in January 2010. We were split into teams of five and throughout the two years we have been running community projects to benefit our local area, which have been based on Olympic and Paralympic values. It’s a personal development programme, which has improved our leadership skills so that we are able to become Games Makers and volunteer at the Olympics and Paralympics in the summer.”

Due to the small number of Young Leaders, there are only 100 amongst the hundreds of thousands that applied, I thought that the selection process must have been ruthless. It turns out it was quite simple: “I found out about it through my school. They just read a notice out in assembly and said that anyone could apply for it so then I applied online. You had to write a couple of hundred words about why you think you’d be able to do it and then we were just selected through that.”

The Young Leaders were all around the age of 16 when they were selected for the programme: a time, I would have thought, that would be filled with impending stress over GCSEs, A-Levels, and possibly thoughts of university application. “It is quite hard to find balance between school, college, work and the Young Leaders Programme, but we’ve been working in our teams, and would have meetings every couple of weeks, and then plan events. We did four events in our team and then we held an individual event. We had to learn the process of how to run an event, how to recruit volunteers, how to find a venue, what you were actually going to do in your event, and then how to do a risk assessment. There were lots of different things that we had no idea of how to do before, but I really, really enjoyed it and learnt so many new skills.”

The events held differed from group to group, but what remained constant was the focus on benefiting those in the community. Hull’s Lewis Poskitt organised his sports project to help coach people with disabilities and in the London Borough of Newham, Tommy Seagull, 18, ran a study corner and organised a book collection for an inner-city school. Fran’s first event started off quite low-key. “It was in a community centre and we worked with young adults who have moderate learning disabilities. We did an evening for them where we did some cooking, we made friendship bracelets with them and badges. It was kind of like an arts and crafts evening with an Olympics theme.”

Another programme that Fran is part of is The Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust (DKH). On the website, it describes the Trust as a legacy Kelly wanted to leave behind from her athletics career that would benefit the young people who look up to, and are inspired by, elite sports performers like herself. Its mission is to ‘create life chances for young people’. Again, I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant and was inspired to hear the way in which the Trust had changed Fran for the better and boosted her confidence. The Trust provides motivation and inspiration to carry out the Young Leaders projects. “We work with The DKH Trust who provide us with athlete mentors that come along to our projects. They’re either Olympic hopefuls, have been at the Olympics or are Commonwealth champions, so really inspiring people that can come along and support us and talk to the community about the programme and the Games.”

“Through The Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, I recently attended their yearly golf game to raise money for their charity and then I stood up in front of a hundred businessmen that I’d obviously never met before and spoke about the programme. I’m really proud of myself for doing that. You definitely develop a lot as a person and I decided that I wanted to do Sports Development and Coaching Science at university, so obviously the Olympics is massive for me because I’m really interested in sports.”

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Fran’s main goal over the two years is to hold as many successful and engaging projects as possible, with the help of a BP mentor who is allocated to each group of five. “Another one of the projects that I actually led was called the Generation Game, where we tried to break the stereotypical barriers between the older generation and the younger generation. We ran this event at our local church and we did activities such as the Wii sports game for the younger generation to teach the older generation. We had board games, we did a yoga session and hosted a quiz through the ages. Everybody was working together and the event was very successful – everybody seemed to enjoy that.”

Fran explained that the community really does come first. Connections are made through lots of different partners: local community centres and churches that have kept in contact with the Young Leaders and want to work with them in other ways in the future. “We feel that we’ve tried to benefit people that wouldn’t have necessarily had the chance to find out about the Olympics and obviously meeting athletes for them has been amazing. It’s been great being able to spread the Olympic spirit and get people involved. It’s all about the community.” This rings true for another Young Leader, Katie, who held a project to give disadvantaged young people the chance to have some fun at a local bowling alley.

The Olympics is, of course, at the heart of this programme. It is the reason the programme began, it is the theme of the projects held and is what ties up the programme at the end of its two-year duration. One of the advantages of being a Young Leader is that you are automatically a Games Maker. There are 70,000 Games Makers who are present at the Olympics and the Paralympics. Fran explains that “although we were guaranteed to become Games Makers, we still had to go through the process of being interviewed, so that it could be decided what role we were going to be put in based on our skills and what we could offer.” Every Games Maker has a different role, Fran explains: “I am going to be working on the Events Services team, which is based in the Common Domain of the Olympic Park, which is basically the outside area surrounding all the venues. The Olympics is the kind of prize if you like, the final – what we’ve gotten out of the programme. We are guaranteed this high profile role, which we are obviously really honoured to be a part of.”

The age of 16 to 18 is a key time in most teenagers’ lives, and since the Young Leaders programme has been a part of Fran’s life for two years, I ask her whether it has guided her down a certain path for her future: “It has definitely played a massive part in helping me get to university and deciding what I wanted to do. I only decided last year what I wanted to do at university and I have become so much more confident through this programme.”

Technically, the Young Leaders graduated this Easter, although their roles in the Olympic games are really the ‘end’ of the programme, with the event taking place at the British Museum. Hally Nguyen, a Young Leader from Newham, said, “The atmosphere was amazing, everyone came together to share their experiences and discussed the future as I prepared for my interview with Jonathan Edwards. At the beginning of this programme, I wasn’t a confident speaker and a public interview had never crossed my mind. However, through intensive training and developing my skills as a young leader, I became confident and was able to share my two-year experience with a live audience.”

These Young Leaders are making huge differences in their communities, bringing enjoyment to disadvantaged people and making positive use of lots of local spaces. Each young person has brought enthusiasm and the Olympic spirit to engage with these projects, which aren’t solely about sport. The importance of the programme, and the way in which its benefits, is two-fold. This project has of course benefited the Young Leaders, but one cannot discount the impact on communities. Over the two years, there have been a lot of ‘pinch-me moments’ for Fran and I ask her if she can whittle it down to just one. It turns out, she can’t: “Meeting Dame Kelly Holmes and famous athletes – I think its just been meeting so many inspirational and amazing people. Obviously we’ve been given the chance to meet Dame Kelly and people like that. But then the other people on the programme, all from different backgrounds, different religions, different races, people that I wouldn’t have necessarily met otherwise, have all become really good friends. To see some of the faces of the children we’ve been working with in the community projects and see what we’ve managed to achieve: it makes you really proud to be a part of such a massive event, this and the fact that we’re actually going to be at the Olympics as well, is amazing.”

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