Beccy Golding visits the learning village that's teaching some valuable life lessons
Last week I took a perilous journey with three ten-year-olds in south Bristol. We encountered an unconscious child; ventured too close to a railway track when a train was coming; almost got knocked down by a speeding car; walked into a burning room; nearly drowned in a polluted river; were almost crushed by a tractor; bought cigarettes, alcohol and out-of-date food; took a short-cut down a dark and creepy lane where we heard a mugging; smelt a gas leak, and much more besides.
This two-hour, risk-filled jaunt was not as dangerous as it sounds. We were four floors up at the Create Centre’s Living Village in south Bristol. (The Create Centre is a converted bond warehouse that houses several environmental and social organisations). We also had a watchful guide in the way of Steve, a volunteer at the Living Village.
The resource is fantastic: when you approach the mock-up train track you feel the whistle of wind and hear the horn; the smoke-filled room is really smoke-filled; the ‘street’ has a road where you hear the screech of brakes as a car speeds towards you, a working pelican crossing, houses and shops you walk in and out of, a cash point, phone boxes that work (so you can practise making calls to the emergency services) and graffiti on the walls.
Volunteer guides – all fully trained and CRB checked – work with small groups of only three or four children, using scripted open-ended questions to get the kids discussing, thinking about and acting on their decisions, through a series of ten scenes, each offering a variety of real-life risks and hazards.
After our expedition I talked to Steve about how he found himself volunteering. “My first career was as a senior manager in the financial services industry,” he told me, “I was made redundant at 49 and decided I wanted to leave that industry and use my skills to work with charities. I work part-time for a local charity (The Pituitary Foundation) and wanted to volunteer as well. I’d heard that there was a place working on child safety and researched it on the internet. I found Lifeskills (a registered charity) and went in for a chat with Andy Townsend (Lifeskills’ manager). Now I’ve been with them for five years!”
I asked Andy for more information about the volunteers that work for Lifeskills. “You need to be over 16 but there’s no upper age limit, like working with kids and be willing to commit to at least one day a month, but you’d be more than welcome to do more! The majority of our Guides are over 50, and 20 of them have been with us for eight years or more.”
“It’s the satisfaction of thinking you’ve done something to help,” Steve added, “if I’ve helped prevent one accident, or one child has known how to act in an emergency, then that’s brilliant.” During the sessions children are encouraged to go home and discuss what they’ve learnt with their families – how to check the batteries on smoke detectors, store dangerous chemicals out of toddlers’ reach, etc. It worked for me. When I got home I was inspired to form an ‘in case of fire’ plan with my son at the house we’ve recently moved in to. We’ve agreed to leave keys in a place we both know so we can locate them in a rush, we know our alternative escape routes, and have a plan of action if the worst happens.
After filling in an application form, and being checked for criminal records, volunteer guides shadow a more experienced guide for four visits. Then volunteers are on trial for a further four-six sessions, then they become qualified as a guide. There’s continued monitoring and everyone joins in an annual re-training session to top up skills and understand any new legislation that may affect their work. Lifeskills has input from the emergency services, Primary Care Trusts (their particular input is on healthy schools/healthy eating), Local Authorities (Home Safe, Road Safe, Trading Standards), and the utilities (Gas, Electricity, Water). They all have ‘messages’ that they want passed on to children, so there’s a wide, stimulating range of issues to be covered.
Volunteers with more experience can also become guide trainers like Steve, so he also helps new members of the team learn the ins and outs of it all.“Our sessions with kids are weekdays, with morning sessions from 10am-12pm, and afternoons 1pm-3pm, so times are likely to suit retired people, or parents that can fit it in between the school run,” Andy continued. “At the moment we have 76 qualified Guides; that’s enough for us to open four days a week. If we had a bank of 100 Guides we could open five days. That would be ideal.” Even with limited opening Lifeskills have worked with 10,000 children this year, 70,000 since they opened in 2000. But there is demand for more; Andy told me they start taking bookings in February each year, by July they are fully booked, by schools in the old Avon area and beyond, with plenty more on the waiting list.
The venue is also used by groups working with older people, people with learning difficulties, even the fire brigade and police use it, so it’s a resource that’s helping a lot of people.
“Volunteer guides are the heart of Lifeskills,” Steve said, “Without their commitment and enthusiasm we just couldn’t operate. I’ve been here so long because I have a passion for it.” And he’s put his money where his mouth is – not only a guide and a trainer, Steve has recently become chairman, “As well as the passion, I realised I had the management skills, and the time to do it.” He asked me to pass on this message: “We need more guides. Please contact us for a tour of the centre if you think you might be interested.”
Lifeskills: Learning for Living
The Create Centre, Smeaton Road, Bristol BS1 6XN
www.lifeskills-bristol.org.uk tel 0117 922 4511
first published in Spark issue 55 - winter 08/09
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