Growing numbers of young people are being drawn to a city centre after-school club which offers hot chocolate, a place to go before parents get home, a social hang-out and a warm place to do homework.
The Bell Tower Youth Drop-in Centre is a voluntary, independent charity and was founded four years ago in Chichester cathedral’s 15th Century bell tower as somewhere young people can feel safe and accepted, where a listening ear is always available and their wellbeing is safeguarded.
In 2018, it enjoyed record attendance, with 4,023 visits by 264 young people.
Coordinator Sam Harding said: “It’s been another fantastic year, where we have continued to provide daily after-school youth provision for all secondary school students, free of charge.”
Sam said the centre maintains a strong relationship with local schools, in particular Chichester High School and Bishop Luffa School, where it runs lunchtime activity drop-in sessions and group and one-to-one mentoring schemes.
Funded by grant-making trusts and individuals and organisations from across the community, the initiative is run by a team of volunteers from churches, the university, recruitment agency Volunteer Now and Chichester College. It is also supported by ‘young leaders’ and four year 11 graduates who have returned to the Bell Tower to help out.
Sam said he is always looking to recruit new and enthusiastic team members, all of whom receive free in-house safeguarding training, plus disclosure and barring service (DBS) checks.
Volunteer Catherine Johnston first came to the Bell Tower simply to find out what happened there.
Catherine said: “I like to be in spaces where people feel welcome, known and cared about, where people are keen to build each other up and to build community ... I quickly realised it was the sort of space where all those things apply. The environment provided by Sam and the team felt like a bit of a second home to some of the kids - some of them have written that in big letters on the chalkboard walls in the drop-in. I have found the young people to be inspiring and fun and spending time with them has been good for me, as well as them.”
Recent improvements include the refurbishment of the group activity area, thanks to a grant from The Dexam Trust.
Sam said: “This has also enabled us to make better use of the space and engage with larger numbers of young people.”
‘Such a welcoming place’
The Bell Tower Youth Drop-in Centre team see every young person as a unique individual with their own specific wants, needs and challenges and offer them consistent support and encouragement.
Centre coordinator Sam Harding said: “The Bell Tower is a place where all are welcome, accepted as they are and encouraged in an understanding environment.”
It is now in year three of its Young Leaders Program, with 10 ‘keen and committed’ young people attending once a week for their shift, serving snacks and beverages, cleaning and tidying the centre and cashing-up at the end, among other jobs.
Every shift is graded, with scores accumulating across the term, and awards are given for those who achieve 80 percent or above of the total possible score.
Two of 2018’s young leaders currently volunteer at the centre on a weekly basis.
Sam said: “This has demonstrated to us the progress of the programme and the impact it has had in helping shape young lives to want make a difference in their community.”
Year 11 student Klaudia said: “I’ve been at the Bell Tower for four years and it’s developed so much! It’s somewhere people can get away from their worries and relieve stress, which has a positive influence on their mental health. Furthermore, it’s an unbelievably welcoming place where the leaders are so caring and always look out for everyone. I love it so much because I know I can always rely on someone there and can have fun with friends, as well as work on my GCSE courses - I couldn’t ask for it to be any better.”
Year 8 student Oliver said: “I love coming, because there’s so much you can get involved in. The young leaders programme has helped me become more confident and the volunteers are so friendly.”
The centre offers free use of its facilities outside hours, including use by a charity supporting young people carrying the burden of caring for disabled members of their family, as well as occupation throughout the summer months by young people taking part in the National Citizenship Award.
Sam said: “We are greatly encouraged by new friendships and partnerships across the community and delighted to be of further service to young people in need.”