“It’s crazy,” laughs Janine Blythe as she stands in the entrance to Chorley’s Inspire Youth Zone, which opened its doors for the first time a year ago this week.
The charity’s chief executive is talking about how quickly the time has passed, but she could equally be referring to the many other surprises which the last 12 months have served up for her team – not least the number of young people who have chosen to become members.
A target to attract 3,000 youngsters in the first year now appears to have been a modest ambition. Almost double that number are now on the books – more than one in every three young people in the borough.
On an average day after school, 160 under-18s spend time at the town centre facility and there have been 65,000 visits since the building welcomed its first guests.
“That really has amazed us – and I can’t help but wonder what these children would be doing if they weren’t here,” Janine reflects.
Equally unexpected, perhaps, is how easy it has proved to keep order amongst such significant numbers, but the youth zone has managed that feat by enforcing three simple rules – respect the building, the staff and each other.
“If anybody is struggling with what we expect, it’s time for a chat to remind them – but we get very few problems, considering how many visitors we get,” Janine says.
“You’ll find the odd group which is a little boisterous, but the best way to overcome that is to make sure everybody is engaged with the activity. When you get issues with behaviour, it’s when they’re looking for something to do.”
Not that boredom is likely to be a factor for the burgeoning membership. The £5m building comes kitted out with an indoor football pitch, music production studio, gym, climbing wall and art room – all of which is a far cry from Janine’s own teenage experience of a youth club, held in the confines of a church basement.
While the football pitch has proved the most popular attraction, board games, Morris dancing and pottery lessons have all been surprising hits across the age range.
“We had a half a dozen 14-year-old lads in here the other night colouring in and saying how it great it was,” smile Janine.
And it is during these less intense activities – or just in time spent chatting – when Janine says the team of youth workers can make the biggest difference to the young people in their care.
“It’s all about creating a relationship, so we can understand them and support them with whatever may be going on in their lives. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s not.
“So if they’re acting out, we say ‘come and talk to us – tell us why you’ve had a bad day’. We have a ‘be honest’ room where they can have a chat to us.
“We thought it would take far longer to build those relationships, but the big surprise is just how quickly that’s happened – and that shows there is a need.”
But on some occasions, the nature of that need is more sobering than others – because the role of “professional friend”, as Janine describes it, goes far further than providing a listening ear.
The organisation has initiated more than 150 safeguarding cases over concerns about the welfare of members. Lower level issues are often addressed by working with the schools which children attend – but sometimes referrals have to be made to the police.
According to Janine, her staff are uniquely placed to spot the signs of a problem.
“Schools are brilliant and are on top of these things now – but when you’re a child and in a very structured environment like school, things aren’t always that noticeable.
“There’s far less structure here and it’s more like being at home. So they relax and that’s when it all comes out.
“Although there are more of these cases than we were expecting, we’re uncovering things which haven’t been uncovered elsewhere – and that’s a really positive thing. Upsetting as it can be for the staff, it means we can do something about it,” Janine adds.
Inspire’s presence on Chapel Street makes Chorley the smallest town in the country to be served by a youth zone run by the charity On Side – but its popularity in the first year of operation has seen it secure the largest relative membership of any of its sister facilities in the North West.
The building is open seven days a week – with different days reserved for 8-12-year-olds and 12-19-year-olds, as well as a club for children with additional needs.
Specialist groups have also been established, with qualified youth workers leading discussions on topics as varied as empowering young girls, domestic violence and sexuality.
“There are a lot of personalities here and a lot of what I’d describe as uniqueness,” youth worker Gabbi Westhead explains.
“It’s sometimes easier for them to express themselves and feel more comfortable if they have these smaller groups to work in.”
And as the youth zone embarks on its second year, plans are afoot to broaden its already wide horizons.
“We want to expand on the offer and look for new things to do,” says Rob Brooks, Inspire’s marketing manager.
“Sometimes it’s about being more inclusive and getting everybody involved – and sometimes more exclusive, as in the case of the girls’ football team we have. It’s a delicate balance.”
Either way, it sounds like more hard work for all concerned – but Janine says the young people make the effort worthwhile.
“Between 9am and 4pm, it’s like running a business and it’s easy to get bogged down. And then the juniors appear at the window and they come in and just want to share their day with you.
“Then all the stress disappears and you just think this has got to be the best job in the world.”
‘COUNCIL WAS RIGHT TO INVEST’
Deputy leader of Chorley Council, Peter Wilson, told the local democracy reporting service that the authority can be “proud” of what the youth zone has achieved in its first year.
The council invested £1m – about 20 per cent of the start-up costs – to help get the project off the ground back in 2015. It also donated the land on which the facility now stands – and continues to reserve £100,000 of its annual budget to supporting Inspire.
“From a council point of view, it’s been great value for money – you can see the difference it’s made to young people’s lives right across the borough,” said Coun Wilson, shortly after attending a first birthday party for the youth zone.
“It’s put young people into a position where they can acquire new skills – or just socialise and make new friends.”
While Inspire’s chief executive gratefully acknowledges that the youth zone “wouldn’t be here” without the council, she still faces the daily challenge of finding the full amount of funding needed to keep the doors the open – £1m a year.
Janine Blythe says the biggest problem she has is getting people to understand that the youth zone is a charity which needs donations to survive.
“We get half a million pounds from local businesses, which is amazing – but now we need to get the whole community involved.
“We need people to support us with regular giving or by doing fundraising events for us. We need to make sure that everybody knows we’re a charity and encourage them to get involved,” Janine adds.
‘THINK ABOUT WHO YOU NEEDED WHEN YOU WERE YOUNG’
It takes a team of 11 full-time and 44 part-time staff – as well as dozens of volunteers – to keep the youth zone functioning.
Jasmin Thompson has been a volunteer at the project since last year – and this week becomes a fully-fledged member of staff. She says that the effect of spending time with young people is striking.
“They can come here in a really bad mood and then when you’ve had chat to them and you see them leaving at the end, they’re totally different. It’s nice to know you’ve had an input, even if it’s just made a minor difference to their day,” Jasmin says.
“You’ve got to be somebody they can have fun with, but also confide in and feel comfortable around – and they do.”
Fellow youth worker Gabbi Westhead describes the importance of building relationships with the children – in spite of the sometimes “manic” environment.
“It’s a good manic,” she laughs.
“But you need to be able to talk to them and then they can use you for what you’re there to do. The way I look at it is that we have to be the people who we needed when we were their age.”
According to marketing manager and sometime youth worker Rob Brooks, the rewards of a young person’s success are felt by the staff as much as the individual.
“We had someone who had been kicked out of mainstream education when he first came here after we opened – and now he has applied for an apprenticeship in the world of skiing.
“He developed a passion for the sport on the back of an event we ran and it’s incredible to see that change in him – you can’t really put satisfaction like that on a scale,” Rob says.
“I WAS JUST ON FACETIME CONSTANTLY”
For one teenager, Chorley’s youth zone has not just taken him out of his bedroom, but turned his eye to business.
Jacob Smethurst is one of a group of members who have used the facilities and support at Inspire to develop their own office range – Dudle.
As sales director for the venture, it does not take long for the patter to kick in, as the 13-year-old displays the embryonic company’s debut product.
“Imagine if you’re sitting at a desk all day – you’re going to use a piece of paper to make notes.
“But what am I going to do with it at the end of the day? I’ll throw it away – and nobody wants that. You’ve basically just stuck your middle finger up to planet earth.
“So we came up with this desktop whiteboard, but the thing about is you can lean on it and it doesn’t erase. The writing only wipes off when you put a special spray on it,” 13-year-old Jacob explains.
The Dudle team have been pitching to businesses – for both orders and investment in shares.
And this week, they are heading to Lancaster University, where the team – who hold regular board meetings at the youth zone – will battle it out with other fledgling entrepreneurs at the North West final of the Young Enterprise Awards.
In between his new-found corporate role, Jacob has also been video editing and learning the drums.
“I’m here more than in my own home now,” he smiles.
“This time last year, I was just on Facetime constantly.”