I was recently asked to write a small piece on the Wickbourne Centre for Youthwork Magazine. I just got confirmation that it’s going to be included in the December issue as one of the Case Studys. Read it here first!
I’ve been a Youth and Community Worker for The WIRE in Littlehampton for the last seven years. During that time, my desk has been based in various surreal locations including a purple portakabin, a small storage room with an unidentifiable smell, a vicars’ office, and a school hut with no insulation. So when the plans for the new Wickbourne Centre began to take shape back in 2003, I was just about the most excited person around.
The Wick area of Littlehampton has traditionally been one of the most deprived areas of West Sussex. Over the past ten years there has been a tremendous amount of investment in the area from various agencies, which has resulted in a high level of support and activities for young people. For some time the local community had suffered from a bad reputation: high crime rate, high drug and alcohol abuse, low literacy levels – all the usual indicators of a deprived area. Along with other agencies, The WIRE had been working hard to provide positive activities, friendly faces and a glimmer of hope.
As a team, we’ve always worked with what we’ve got, but sometimes our lack of proper facilities worked against us. I remember when a young woman came to talk to me about being kicked out of home. She had nowhere to stay, and as a meeting was taking place in the office, we had nowhere to talk. We sat out on the street leaning against a damp brick wall, her with a fag in hand, me with a cup of tea shivering in the December air.
It was soon after this that Arun Community Church inherited the deeds to Wickbourne Chapel, a small church on the estate. The chapel was no longer used and the Arun elders were unsure what to do with the land. The building was far too small for the 400-strong congregation. But it was in a great location for engaging with the community: right on the main road into town. It was this prominent position that prompted SureStart (the Government initiative for 0 to 5-year-olds and their parents) to approach Arun church with a view for redevelopment. They had been given Ã‚Â£1.6 million to start a local Children’s Centre, part of the national drive to support pre-school aged children, and had to find a suitable location from which to run their services. The chapel became the only viable option and it wasn’t long before the bulldozers moved in, the building went up, and I got a new desk.
The Wickbourne Centre is a modern looking building, only one story high and three times the size of the old chapel, making full use of available space. Through the sliding doors at the front, it houses a main hall, internet cafÃƒÂ©, two training rooms, a lounge, public kitchen, a play area, open-plan office space, a crÃƒÂ¨che facility, a 50-place neighbourhood nursery (with industrial kitchen), meeting rooms and a courtyard. Now owned and operated by the church, it is a vibrant and exciting place to be. SureStart have a team running various anti-natal, smoking cessation and parenting groups, plus crÃƒÂ¨ches and support for 0 to 5-year-olds. The WIRE runs various children’s play-schemes, after-school clubs and activities, while Arun Community Church offers faith-based clubs, more after-school clubs, pregnancy counselling and the nursery. On top of all this, local community groups and agencies such as Social Services run training courses, drop-ins and support sessions.
Since opening, the centre has had a significant impact on the community. I run ‘Slam’, the 11 to 14s youth group on Thursday nights. Before the centre was open we used to get around 25 young people each week. Since we moved, numbers have jumped to around 60, causing us no end of enjoyable challenges! We have seen scores of parents bringing their children to the Kid’s church on Friday nights and staying for Alpha groups! Young people drop in for a can of coke on their way home from school and end up volunteering at the after-school clubs, and families I have worked with on the estate for five years now attend church and are getting baptised.
Of course, in all this excitement there are still various challenges. Where do you draw the line on what activities are allowed to occur in a church-run building? How do you make such an open building safe and secure? How do you work alongside Government agencies that do not really understand the motivation of the Christian faith? And who pays for the next round of cappuccinos?
In all of the success, there is something really important to remember here. Unless you’re an architect, there is nothing remotely interesting about the centre – it is only a building after all. What is really exciting about the Wickbourne Centre is how the various agencies including the church are using it as a resource to engage with the community in ways that they have not done before. Just because we have a shiny new home it does not mean everyone feels welcome to come inside. It is still vitally important to build relationships. There is still a need to go outside. It’s just that now when they do want to talk, we don’t have to stand around shivering.
Jon Jolly is the Youth and Community Worker, for The WIRE