Owzat? Pretty good, actually

It's easy to be cynical, blasé or ignorant of the work of The Prince's Trust. But here's a tale to prove that young lives really can be changed by an organisation celebrating its 30th birthday.

It's easy to be cynical, blasé or ignorant of the work of The Prince's Trust. But here's a tale to prove that young lives really can be changed by an organisation celebrating its 30th birthday. STEVEN RUSSELL reports

AH, the gentle thwunk of leather on willow . . .

We're at the Ford County Ground in Chelmsford, where Leicestershire's batsmen have Essex on the back foot. The sun might be shining but the outlook's gloomy for followers of Ronni Irani's men.

Happily, past the ice-cream van and through the doors of the indoor cricket centre, a cheerier story is waiting to be told. Not that long ago, teenager Sarah Comben was short on confidence and unsure which way to turn.

Twelve weeks later and the difference is tangible. A young lady who once hardly dared pick up the phone to ask about a job vacancy is now happy to chat to a virtual stranger (that's me) about her dreams.

Those three months were spent on a development programme for 16- to 25-year-olds. True, it has rather a clunky name - NatWest Cricket with The Prince's Trust - but what's important is that it helps build the self-esteem needed to fulfil potential.

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It's an intensive Monday-to-Friday course. In Sarah's case it involved a residential stay at Bradwell Outdoors - the activity complex built on the Dengie peninsula in the 1960s by Essex County Council to offer activities on land and afloat. The emphasis is on developing teamwork and co-operation.

Next up was a four-week challenge to plan a project, raise money for it, and make it happen: in this case decorating Galleywood Youth Centre. A fortnight's work experience followed, then a look at job skills: preparing CVs, having mock interviews, and examining how to make applications.

Nearly there . . .

A team challenge called for more collaborative planning, fundraising and execution. Sarah's group helped a dozen folk from a local centre for special needs play cricket and make healthy fruit smoothies.

The final week saw the team put together an imaginative presentation to show friends and family what they'd been doing and what they felt they'd gained from the exercise. Rather than being a tedious AGM-type affair, it employed a rather imaginative Have I Got News For You-style approach.

A running theme was the cricket link. The group went once a week to the indoor centre at the Ford County Ground for a couple of hours of bowling and batting tuition.

Sarah's more of a rugby fan - playing for a team in the Romford area. Three weeks after the course finished, she's still eyeing suspiciously the bowling machine in the indoor nets! But playing at Chelmsford has raised her interest in the sport.

There was also a motivational talk from England international Alex Tudor. “He was really nice. He talked about being young and taking every opportunity you possibly can.”

Many of the young people on these courses are unemployed; some need help with basic skills. Sarah, 19, was a little bit different.

She explains how things got a little out of kilter following A-levels. “I wanted to be a physiotherapist, but that went out of the window. I'm not very good at exams, and it's exam-based. I'm more of practical person.”

Sarah went on to college, but the arrangements had happened a little too fast for her. She feels the academic year began before she was ready, and things got a bit skewy.

She slipped behind with the work. “It was too much to catch up. I just thought 'I don't want to do this. I'll have a bit of a break.' Then I was looking for jobs and it didn't work out, and I got really depressed about it. Then I heard about The Prince's Trust and that got me all motivated to do things again.”

A friend's mum saw the course advertised, and the two schoolfriends applied together.

Sarah and Nicola started in January of this year and finished around Easter.

“I didn't have any expectations. I thought I'd go along and see what it was like. I was happy to enjoy it. I didn't like it at first - I didn't know anyone else - and it was a case of getting to know people. And then once I got into it I really enjoyed it. It was quite cool, coming down here once a week for the cricket, and mixing with people you wouldn't normally mix with.”

The agenda certainly seemed to do the trick - like the week at Bradwell with its orienteering, bike-riding, canoeing and the like.

“It brought up closer together. We knew each other's limitations and what each other's boundaries were, and helped each other out with what we needed to achieve.”

The others were great fun and they clicked. “Everyone had different backgrounds and different reasons for doing it.”

The decorating of Galleywood Youth Centre sounds fun. It needed some TLC, with damp affecting one of the walls.

“We blagged quite a lot of the stuff,” Sarah smiles. “There was a kind of paint recycling centre in Colchester and we blagged quite a lot of paint from there. And we blagged a lot of scaffolding equipment - and a sander, though we had to pay for the pads.

“We all had a good laugh and took the mickey out of each other - and covered each other in paint when we were doing the decorating!

“We raised money by a band night, an auction where the cricket club gave us vouchers to get tickets, cricket bats and stuff like that. We raised several hundred pounds doing it.”

It sounds a bit like The Apprentice. “It was more like Big Brother, or I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! We all had to work together, despite our differences. It really worked. I wouldn't normally have mixed with the people on the course, so it was really good.”

Her stint at Marks & Spencer in Chelmsford - in the ladieswear department and food - was also beneficial.

“I think I developed my communication skills by working with members of staff, and learned to use my initiative a little bit more than I would. And I worked indoors; I'm more used to working outside, and working with children a lot more.”

A car wash raised money for supplies when they made healthy food with folk from a local special school. The visitors also decorated glass and made posters, and played soft-ball cricket at the indoor centre.

During the course Sarah went for an interview for an educational ranger's job, and got it. “I went to the interview more relaxed because I knew I was doing the course and wanted to complete it - and because I was more relaxed, I got the job.”

At weekends she works at Marsh Farm Country Park, owned and run by the county council at South Woodham Ferrers. She started there as a 14-year-old volunteer.

Before the course began, Sarah lacked self-belief. “I found it hard to phone people up I didn't know.” Today, she's doing a fine job explaining what she thought about the programme. “I wouldn't have done that before. It's put my confidence up.”

She felt at a bit of a loss when the end came last month. “I'd been coming in every day, and that kept me motivated. I didn't know what to do with myself.” Someone had pointed out an educational activity company's advert for an instructor, and she applied for that the week after the course finished. If she gets it, she could be working in the Lake District, on the Isle of Wight or in Norfolk - £250 a month, with food and accommodation thrown in.

If that doesn't come off, she plans to apply to Writtle College to study countryside management or a National Diploma in agriculture - “something outdoors”.

Whatever the future holds, Sarah gives The Prince's Trust scheme a big thumbs-up.

“It's helped to build my social skills more than anything else. I had friends at work and with my rugby, but I didn't have many of my own age. I left school and most of my friends are at university or they're working, so I can't really speak to them much. It helped me to socialise with people more my own age.

“By doing this course it's given me more motivation to get out there and do things.”

Web link: www.princes-trust.org.uk

WHAT'S the secret, then?

“Why it works I have no idea, to be honest!” laughs team leader Gill Collins, from Essex County Council's youth service. “But in the short span of 12 weeks you can see a tangible change in the young people on the course.”

The youth service runs the programme locally for The Prince's Trust. Three are held each year; this month sees the 29th group start the course.

“We give them the opportunity to realise their potential, I think. We recognise the positives; we do not pick up on the negatives. Well, we don't ignore them, but we don't exclude the person.

“If someone ticks the box to say they are a drug user, it doesn't mean they don't get on the course. What it does mean is that we can offer them the correct support during the course.

“Some of these young people face considerable challenges. Maybe someone has turned up on time, day after day, and for them that is something really positive. We will pick up on that and build on it where we can.”

So by accentuating the positives you squeeze out any negatives.

“Exactly. They can see the achievement in front of their eyes as they work on a common project. They can step back and say 'I did that. I learned that skill, and I've left something for someone else to enjoy or to make use of.'

“Young people want boundaries, but also want to be pushed. I think they feel very disappointed if you don't say 'You've done really well here, but let's see if there's any way it can be done better.'

“You see people grow in confidence because they have seen what they can do.”

McFLY, the Sugababes, Lionel Richie, Ronan Keating and Annie Lennox are among the acts at The Prince's Trust 30th birthday concert at the Tower of London.

The May 20 event celebrates the fact that more than 500,000 people have been helped by the charity since 1976.

Highlights will be screened on ITV1, hosted by Cat Deeley. Some of the show will be broadcast in 3D - the trust is selling 3D spectacles so viewers can see the benefit. Depending on availability, they should be available from Tesco, Carphone Warehouse. Post Office, Optical Express/The Dental Clinic, USC, Office, Qube, and d2.

Viewers will be asked to pledge money to the charity, which helps disadvantaged people between the ages of 14 to 30. The trust is also urging the public to register for a fundraising pack through www.pt30.org.uk or by phoning 08456 56 22 22.

The Prince's Trust 30th Birthday is designed to give hope to a lost generation of young people often written off as layabouts.

The Prince of Wales said many of those labelled “hoodies or thugs” were not nameless and faceless, but individuals. “All I want my trust to do is invest in their futures so that they can live lives which are fulfilling and rewarding for themselves, their families, their communities and their country.”

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