Vision to transform lives of vulnerable young in Suffolk

Jo Flack is raising money to open a unit to help young people with mental health difficulties in Suf

Jo Flack is raising money to open a unit to help young people with mental health difficulties in Suffolk aspire, achieve and live fulfilling, independent lives - Credit: Sarah Lucy brown

Jo Flack is spearheading a fundraising campaign for a cause close to her heart. And if she succeeds, it could transform the life chances of vulnerable young people. Sheena Grant reports.

Jo Flack had taught young people with complex needs for several years when she had a eureka moment.

Fed up of seeing teens with mental health difficulties fall into isolation and despair once they left compulsory education, Jo decided to act. If specialist help wasn’t readily available to help them move to the next stage of their lives then she would provide it.

Together with the help and support of a fellow teacher and friend, Jo has launched an ambitious project. The two women plan to open a unit to help those young people aspire, achieve and live fulfilling, independent lives.

Both women have professional expertise in the field but they also have personal experience of life’s challenges too. Jo has suffered from obsessional compulsive disorder and her colleague, who wants to remain anonymous, has autism.

“We share a passion for ensuring every young person has the skills to become the best they can,” says Jo. “Together, we have more than 20 years’ experience of supporting young people with complex needs to achieve their goals. We have become acutely aware of the lack of provision for young people with mental health and learning difficulties who are no longer eligible for statutory funding once they leave compulsory education.

“Before they reach 16, they get all sorts of educational support if they are unable to get out of their houses and attend a school. But after that, if they can’t access college learning, they are stuck with no education and no-where to go. These young people are extremely vulnerable and at risk of becoming disengaged due to the current lack of relevant opportunities to progress and participate. If provisions are not in place, they are more likely to become a statistic of unemployment, hospitalisation or homelessness. We plan to plug this gap.”

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The women have called their venture the ACE Project and aim to deliver services for 16 to 24-year-olds with mental health difficulties, who are not in education, work or training.

“It will be educational but what we are planning is actually more holistic than that,” says Jo, who left her full-time job with a national charity and is now working part-time as a school support worker in order to get the project off the ground.

“As teachers, we have been privileged to support the development of these learners and share in their successes and we are in a strong position to know that more can and deserves to be done. This will be for people who are struggling to leave their homes and access whatever support might be available if they were in a position to look for it. They will have left mainstream education and probably be struggling to move on to the next stage of their lives.

“We aim to reduce social isolation for at least 10 young people within the first six months of the project by working with them in their homes or another familiar environment to build the confidence and resilience to enable them to access existing provision, to develop their life and social skills in a supportive environment with a network of peers and to give them tools and strategies to support their progress in life through offering bespoke educational packages in one-to-one and group settings.”

The project will be delivered on the principles of the A.C.E acronym approach to wellbeing; Achieve, Connect, Enjoy. The aim is to break the habit of isolation; meet anxiety and other mental health issues head on; create a face-to-face support network of peers and enable the young people they work with to learn, practise and develop the tools and strategies needed to live an independent and fulfilling life.

“Our approach is to treat each young person as an individual; to value their interests, experiences, abilities, insights and intelligence as well as identifying difficulties and barriers,” says Jo. “This methodology puts no limits on individual capabilities and will allow these young people the same opportunities as their peers to achieve their goals and reach their full potential.”

Although The ACE Project will be centred on Suffolk, Jo says the problem is a national one.

“The idea originally came from my friend,” she says. “She encouraged me to make the project happen. At first I said no but she was quite persistent. In the end, when I realised this gap wasn’t going to go away, I said, ‘let’s do it’.”

As funds will be limited at first, ACE, a not-for-profit organisation, will be run by the women, as volunteers, in their spare time, initially over the summer and then for one day a week. They are currently in negotiations to secure a base in Ipswich and the need is such that their first clients have already been identified.

“If it’s a success and we get enough funds we hope to expand,” says Jo. “At the moment we are completely reliant on public donations.

“We want to help people make demonstrable progress, to be able to function within themselves and in the world around them. There really is a need and I feel passionate and driven about making this happen.”

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