When Cameron Lord sat down with his youth officer Dan Townsend at Willows Youth Club in Troedyrhiw in Merthyr Tydfil, he didn’t expect it would give him the confidence to come out as gay before he had even told his parents.
Then in his mid-teens, he admits he “didn’t even know who he was”, having recently moved to Wales with his family.
For Cameron, now 19, the move had been a chance to start afresh after a sometimes difficult childhood, but he never expected how it would transform his life.
Sitting down on the day that led him to come out was a moment that sticks in his mind.
“We sat in the corner of the room for about an hour, and because how Dan spoke to me… he wasn’t just sat there pretending to listen, I felt like I could actually speak to him.
“I ended up coming out to Dan before I’d even come out to my parents. I actually came out then a couple of weeks later. Speaking to him gave me the empowerment to do that.”
Youth work ignited Cameron’s interest and although he had started studying engineering, he began volunteering more frequently and was eventually offered a paid role at Willows Youth Club, primarily supporting young members of the LGBT+ community.
Cameron says just offering young people a friendly ear and advice based on his own personal experiences is what makes youth services so valuable around the country.
“I was very scared to [come out] because I thought it would be bad, but everyone accepted it. A lot of young people are scared that their parents are going to be really horrible, but most of them are not.
“Some people would actually confide in me about things they wouldn’t want to speak to their parents about – relationship issues, people getting bothered at school or people still in the closet not knowing how to come out to their parents. Or even people who think they might be gay.
“Having someone around their age who they feel they can talk to is really important.”
Cameron says he hasn’t experienced any negativity because of his sexuality, but he knows it’s not the same for others.
“I’m quite a confident person in myself now, and youth work has 100% helped that. It helps you express yourself and say ‘I am who I am’.”
Although Cameron credits Willows with helping him become who is is today, many other young people around Wales are often not offered the same opportunity.
‘Youth services have been decimated by cuts’
Many communities around the country have seen funding cuts for youth services in the past few years, resulting in youth clubs being shuttered in increasing numbers.
Research released by YMCA, an organisation which helps support homeless services and services for young people around Wales and the UK, uncovered earlier this year a 70% real-terms decline in funding across England and Wales since 2010.
It said funding for youth services in Wales had fallen from £50 million in 2010/11 to just £31 million in 2018/19 – a real terms decline of 38%.
Local authorities and services around Wales have indeed felt the pinch; in 2018, Gwynedd Council closed all of its 39 youth clubs and replaced them with one county-wide club. The decision was defended, with the local authority citing falling numbers at some of its clubs, but drew criticism from the youth services industry.
Janet Cleverley, an independent councillor in Bettws in Newport, worked as a youth worker for 40 years, and says the community has felt the effects of declining youth services there since its main club closed in 2018.
She said: “Youth services have been decimated by cuts over the past ten years. There’s drug dealing with young people riding on their bikes, anti-social behaviour with people hanging around the shops and the parks. There’s nothing there for them to do.
“All the clubs we used to have in Alway, Ringland, all around the area, they’ve all been gone for years.”
Some staff previously in youth services now work under the Resilient Communities programme, the EU-funded project which replaced Newport’s Communities First youth services programme. With several ‘hubs’ around the city, it offers workshops such as first-aid, food hygiene, jobs support and some youth projects.
However, Janet says the services offered don’t make up for what was lost.
“They need these clubs as places where they can feel safe and have their deepest concerns addressed.
“It’s also about offering help with things like housing, court, jobs, drugs etc. It’s not just about playing games.”
Although the health of a community is not solely dependent on its youth clubs, there are some telltale signs. Bettws is one of Wales’ poorest areas, and is one of the areas of Newport which most frequently suffers from problems such as crime, drugs, antisocial behaviour and prostitution.
While there’s no magic formula to keeping young people off the streets, and a wider approach of increased investment in sectors like health, educations and jobs is needed to improve any community suffering from social problems, there’s no doubt that having youth services impacts positively on young peoples’ lives.
But with no hard statistics telling us how much enjoyment or benefit young people get from youth services, it’s the stories of workers, volunteers and young people themselves that matter most.
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“We can see up to 50 or 60 people a night coming in,” says Daniel Townsend from Willows Youth Club in Merthyr.
“It’s somewhere that young people can come and have a discussion around an issue and get support. Some end up staying there and taking on more responsibility.”
In Bridgend 15-year-old Cameron Richards volunteers a few nights a week at KPC Youth and Community Centre, and has been attending the club since he was a young boy.
He mainly works in the café and says he loves “meeting new people, getting to know the other members and introducing members to people they don’t know.”
“When I was younger all my friends started going, so if you didn’t go you’d be a bit bored,” he said.
“We used to get 120 people a night, sometimes more, but a few years ago the numbers dropped. They’ve since started coming back up, and now we get maybe 90 people a night.”
“People might think I’m wrong, but I think numbers falling are because people who are leaving no longer need us, as we have helped them get to that point.
“It’s not just young people, we go out and talk to people on the street, and make them aware of who KPC are and what we are doing.”
Despite his age, Cameron is a big part of the club, and has even represented them at conferences and events.
“It’s somewhere for people to have fun, make friends and learn how to stay safe. We often have workshops on things like social media and cyberbullying too.”
Paula Lunnon, Chairperson at KPC Youth, says the club is always looking to adapt to societal shifts.
“Everything we knew 20 years ago, from family structure to technology, has changed, and we have to change with it.
“We have enviable space at KPC, especially outside, and I’d love to attract more people in the 18 to 25 group. But to do that we need to develop technology to keep up with that generation.
“I’ve been hoping for a while for us to develop our own app for the centre which people could use to log in, speak over video to their youth worker, get information on things like sexual health or jobs, or even just find out what’s going on at the centre that night.”
‘It’s quite an optimistic time for youth services’
Signs of life are there, too. Last year, the Welsh Government formally announced the Youth Work Strategy for Wales, which set out steps to improving youth services including more inclusion, sustainable models and increased support for both voluntary and paid workers in the industry.
Josie Downing, 22, is project officer at the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of Wales (BGC Wales), and helps set up new youth clubs around the Vale of Glamorgan.
She says the new government strategy bodes well for the industry.
“It’s quite an optimistic time for youth services, I think. We obviously had the new strategy last year, and Education Minister Kirsty Williams is really supportive of youth work and keen to keep things going.
“We’re coming out of a lot of cuts, but things are starting to look a bit more promising.
“We want to work in partnership not competition, so that does mean liaising with public bodies about things like making sure events that we have aren’t clashing, so that we can all provide a wide breadth of events.”
Josie, 22, is also writing her dissertation on the impact of youth work on young people in South Wales at Cardiff Metropolitan University.
She adds: “I’d still like to see it valued more in the education sector. Youth work can sometimes be dismissed a little, and not given its dues. Hopefully with more recognition there will be more funding going forward.”
But Daniel Townsend says the issue of how youth services should be defined in the overall system is tricky.
“Now I’ve been managing in youth services for a few years, I tend to find youth workers being pigeon-holed into education a lot, and I don’t think that’s where we’re best suited.”
Despite this, Dan says the ability to offer other pathways to those who find the normal school system difficult is hugely valuable.
He said: “We have worked with people who have been out of the school system for quite a long time, and through working with them ensure that they can get a qualification based on what’s best for them. It doesn’t mean schools have failed – it just means that individual needed a different approach, and we have that flexibility to give them that I suppose.
“We work with the person throughout their adolescent life and give them the opportunity that they can either take or not. I think that’s what gives us our value.”
Dan says youth clubs will continue to be a vital service for young people going forward.
“If young people don’t have anywhere to go, they go to McDonalds, or wherever. They don’t always have a good home to go back to – we come across many people who are in care, or living with their grandparents, all different situations.
“Coming down during the week, or whenever it may be, pulls them out of isolation and helps them meet others who might be in the same situation.”
Cameron Lord says he hopes to set up a peer support group within Willows where young LGBT+ community members can come together, share their concerns and get advice.
“We’d like a place where people can make friends and not feel alone.
“The difference in opportunities and qualifications that you can access through the club, it can actually shape your future and give you somewhere in life to go.”
Josie adds: “It’s so important for young people to have a place where they can have something that is their own.
“At BGC we even help young people who have never been on a plane before organise trips abroad, so it really can be anything. But we also want them to know we’re there as supportive adults who aren’t there to tell them off.”
“People do quite slam the young people up for anything, and I don’t think it’s fair,” Cameron Lord says.
“We are judged a lot by our communities, and young people are reacting based on that. If you treat them badly, they’ll treat you badly. It’s a cycle, and then they’re the ones that get judged and feel targeted.
“I don’t think I’d be where I am without people like Dan. Youth work has changed the way I see the world.
“I’ve progressed from doing nothing to actually getting somewhere in life. Without it I’d probably be on the dole or down the job centre, or working a dead-end job, I don’t know. My mum still don’t shut up about it!”
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We recognise the importance of youth services and are absolutely committed to working with our partners to ensure their delivery.
“Alongside our Youth Work Strategy, we’ve backed this commitment by more than doubling our funding for these services to over £10 million per year.
“They fulfil a vital role for young people and communities, including as part of the coronavirus response, by staying in touch and supporting some of the most vulnerable and marginalised young people.”