Bright future for troubled kids
9 July 2019 | Wales
How Jake and Karen are working together to give disadvantaged young people a better start in life.
As a youngster, Jake Henry became embroiled in gangs and crime.
But when he was released from prison, he was absolutely determined not to slip back into his old ways.
He turned his life around, and with his partner Karen Carswell, who also had to overcome a difficult past, now helps to give vulnerable and troubled young people a brighter future.
Together, they run VIBE Youth in Swansea, helping young people who are facing challenging life issues. These are youngsters who are at risk of social isolation and exclusion from school.
“These kids are the most likely to engage in risky behaviours,” says Jake. “We define a risky behaviour as any behaviour that is harmful, or potentially exposes a person to significant risk of harm like acts of violence and substance misuse.”
Jake works to help kids from falling in the same trap he did growing up in east London. Raised on a council estate with six siblings, his father walked out while Jake was young. He struggled at school and left with no qualifications.
“I could barely even read or write, had no confidence and walked straight into the hands of a gang,” says Jake, 37. “At the time, they made me feel special and important.”
Almost inevitably the law caught up with him and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for firearms offences. It was only when he was locked up that he realised there was a different path he could take. He trained himself to read and write and took educational courses. “I realised I didn’t want to be a statistic. I determined then, that when I got out I would not reoffend.”
After five years, Jake was released on good behaviour. And when his mother died, he decided to join Karen in Wales, where she grew up. Together they hatched a plan for a fresh start. “Karen is such a strong woman, she inspires me every day and I have learnt so much from her.
“We come from very different backgrounds but we both made bad choices,” said Jake. “But between us, we have so much learning and experience to pass on. We understand why kids have a particular emotional response to a traumatic situation. Karen, in particular wants to empower young women so they can avoid falling into a similarly bad relationships.”
After a stint working at a boxing gym which looked to change the lives of disadvantaged youth, he and Karen came up with the idea of VIBE Youth in 2017.
They started to go into schools all around Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Cardiff to deliver workshops and programmes based on their experiences and promote positive relationships and building resilience.
Eventually they met with Social Business Wales, which is delivered by the Wales Co-operative Centre and who work to grow the social enterprise sector in Wales. They worked with Jake and Karen to help them develop their ideas.
“They helped us see the potential in what we have, and guided us to start looking at our venture as a business rather than a personal project.”
The largest age group the couple work with are those aged between 11 and 16, those deemed ‘hardest to reach’ and most likely to get caught up in drugs and alcohol. They are also those most likely to become snared in the growing county lines problem, where city dealers use vulnerable young people to distribute drugs in rural areas. Jake and Karen meet them in small group settings.
“We try and emphasise the need for role models, but not just that, they have to be the ‘right’ kind of role model, a really positive one.”
Karen said she was really pleased to see transformations already in many of the youngsters they have worked with. “Earlier this year I worked with a 15-year-old young lady who was heavily involved in drugs and alcohol. Her school had told her she wasn’t going to be able to take her GCSEs and it didn’t look good for her.
“But after we went back and through the emotional reasons behind her negative behaviour we were able to change her perception of herself. She went from someone who had really poor attendance to someone who now never misses a day of school.”
“She is actually on course to achieve A grades in her GCSEs. I feel very proud and happy for her. And it makes me feel great too.”