My theme for the year is volunteering, with a particular focus on those who work so hard and willingly to make their communities safer and more caring.
Almost all the conversations I have had in these first few weeks of being High Sheriff, have highlighted how important it is to try to ensure our children and young adults get the best possible start in life. Many who face early challenges go on to do really well; but investing in young people, without question, brings huge benefits. Many organisations I have met regret the decline in the provision of council-led youth services, but the voluntary sector has a real focus on young people.
The stories I have heard have often been inspiring – such as the fabulous work done by the members of the Essex Boys and Girls Clubs, which are mostly run by volunteers. Right across the county, affiliated clubs offer a wide range of activities for young people. With the expertise and resources EBGC have built up over many years, many of these activities can be made available to those who otherwise could not afford the excitement of adventurous holidays; and some can be delivered especially for those who might otherwise find themselves in trouble.
But spending time with a group of youth leaders from different organisations in Chelmsford highlighted for me the risks that young people can face, particularly when excluded from school. The grooming of young people into drugs gangs is a reality, despite the innovative work of Essex Police, working in partnership with many others, for example the Essex Violence and Vulnerability Unit. Those organisations and individuals working to provide safe spaces for young people and to offer a sense of ambition for their future is commendable.
Support for our children can sometimes be necessary even from the earliest days. In Billericay I visited Baby Basics who provide baby items such as clothing and other essentials, all in a ‘Moses basket’ , for new parents in need to see them through the first few weeks. They share a community hub that also acts as a base for the Schools Pastors, yet more volunteers who provide a listening ear to students in local senior schools.
Sadly, things don’t always work out for families and children. Hearing about the work of our Family Courts from our Resident District Court Judge was sobering. Domestic abuse has significantly increased over lockdown and many children have been affected as a result. Other youngsters have themselves found lockdown hard to handle, and it was distressing to learn of the considerable difficulty of finding safe and secure places for those in greatest need, and at risk of harming themselves.
On the more positive side it was wonderful to hear how satisfying it can be to place children successfully into adoption and to see them flourish. Our Family Court judges have an exceptionally difficult job and I fear their work is undervalued and their work not sufficiently well-known. I look forward to spending more time with them.
Engaging young people as early as possible in positive activities is recognised by everyone to be the best solution to many problems. Giving children the skills to have self-confidence is an important step. A delight for me was judging the Might Oak public speaking competition for Year 4 children in Essex schools. The final rounds were held at Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford and I was hugely impressed, not only by the children’s high standard of public speaking, but also by the commitment and enthusiasm of their teachers and those organising the competition. (If the public speaking was slightly nerve-racking for the children, judging wasn’t a doddle either!)
There are many organisations that offer teenagers and young adults the chance to learn new skills, disciplines and enthusiasms. I’m looking forward to seeing the work of the Volunteer Police Cadets later this year, but was pleased this week to visit the Headquarters of the East Anglia Reserve Forces and Cadets Association. Across the Eastern region (so wider than just Essex) there are 338 cadet units where nearly 2,000 officers and instructors, almost all volunteers, take responsibility for and train 12,500 cadets. This commitment from volunteers to our young people is so valuable. Thank you all!
Possibly most impressive are those organisations run by young people for young people. The hugely successful Essex Young Farmers Show highlighted what can be achieved by dedicated and hard working volunteers showcasing their skills and promoting farming, still so important to Essex, and offering a really great day out to the local community.
There are of course, many other groups, some large and some small, offering similar support for our children and young adults. I’m looking forward to meeting many of them over the coming year, and especially those who work with children who might otherwise be led into anti-social behaviour or crime.
I have learned it can be tough work for the staff and volunteers who run those organisations; but also how rewarding it can be. The testimony of those whose lives have been turned round – for the better – has been compelling and heart-warming.