Before the activities start at Youth Links, the youth group at Growing Together Westcliff, we start with a check-in. "How has your week been?” It’s a simple enough question, yet one that we too often forget to ask ourselves. One by one, each of the teenagers and both of the trained counsellors take turns to share two good things about their week and one bad thing. It can be hard to keep track of what goes on in your own head, and especially if you’re a young person it is important to have people around that are willing and have the time to listen to what you have to say.
Youth Links is open to anyone between the ages of 11-18. Youth group evenings are held every Wednesday at Growing Together Westcliff, every Monday at Growing Together Thundersley, and every other Thursday at Growing Together Rochford. Youth Links is an opportunity for young people to spend time doing fun activities such as crafts, cooking, and playing games, whilst also gaining a valuable support network and learning to be mindful of their mental health.
"I really like Youth Links,” Kerry, 16, said. "The vibe is different to everywhere else. It’s really relaxed and I like everyone here. Plus the hoodies are pretty cool too!”
Each evening at Youth Links there is a different activity: from making bath bombs to kneading pizza dough, it’s always something new and something that the members themselves have suggested. "It’s their youth group,” explains Victoria Dann, one of the trained counsellors running Youth Links. "We spend time asking them what they want to do and we tailor the activities to make the most out of their evenings. Everyone takes part!”
Tonight we are making Yorkshire puddings to eat with vanilla ice cream. Opinion is divided over whether this is a tasty treat or a culinary nightmare; once everyone is stuck in there is an air of excitement when the batter is ladled into baking trays and put into the oven. Teenagers are also free to enjoy Trust Links’ therapeutic gardens, play board games or musical instruments, or chat to the counsellors one to one.
"I like being able to go for a walk in the gardens. At my old youth group we never had anything like this.”
The focus on mental health and wellbeing at Youth Links is very non-stigmatising and inclusive. This was always important to Victoria when she started running Youth Links in February: "You get a lot of structure at school and I wanted to do things holistically, opening up the decision-making to my young people.”
"There was never anything like this for young people at my age. The kids’ views don’t always get heard and Youth Links is all about giving people that space to be listened to.”
Scott, 14, said the thing he appreciated most about Youth Links was being able to speak up about the issues that face his generation. Youth Links are closely involved with the Southend Youth Council, where young people from the borough are encouraged to debate and discuss politics and society. "Everyone has really important views and what I like about this group is that everyone feels comfortable sharing. We have talked about homelessness, vandalism, and climate change.”
Youth Links is in its first year and the organisers are keen to expand, and get more young people involved in their sessions. Another of the counsellors, Jassa, said: "Young people are considered, thoughtful and they’re concerned about the future. Young people are far more expressive than perhaps people give them credit for.”
"Being able to run Youth Links provides something positive for young people. You’ve got a chance to have a go at everything that’s on offer – from baking to embroidery – and we always make sure to have a sit down meal at each evening.”
And now that the Yorkshire puddings are out of the oven we all sit around the table and tuck in. The puddings are fat and round and lightly crisped; they are perfect, after all, with ice cream and maple syrup. "Everyone brings something different”, says Melissa between bites. "It’s really relaxed and I like everyone here. I wore my hoodie to school on non-uniform day and I really hope my friends come soon!”