Twenty teenagers from Bootle's largest suburb are at Ambleside in Cumbria, on a five- day residential adventure holiday. The Brathay project is part of Payes, a Police and Youth Encouragement Scheme, set up by Julie Wilson and PC Eric McQueen in January 1993, partly in response to the Bulger murder case.
With 36 per cent of Bootle's population unemployed, Wilson and McQueen wanted to find a structured way to nurture sociable behaviour among its 12- to 14-year-olds.
Bootle has four-and-a-half times as many drug incidents, and a crime rate about 60 per cent higher, than Merseyside as a whole. Two thirds of its primary-aged children qualify for free school meals - about twice as many as elsewhere in Britain. And the number of children on the 'At Risk' register is three times higher than the national average.
'In Bootle if you own your home, or even have a, car then you're well off,' says Wilson. 'It's hard to aspire to further education when you see failure and hopelessness all around. And it's all too easy to steal the first chocolate bar - the top of the slippery slope of crime.'
'Crime doesn't pay - Honesty Payes' goes the scheme's slogan. So far, only one of the 120 children registered with Payes has offended. One caution for a minor offence is overlooked, but serious offences mean expulsion from the scheme.
Young people are nominated by schools, youth groups, community workers, churches and the police themselves on the grounds of scale of hardship and deprivation experienced at home. Some are victims of crime or abuse; others have parents or siblings who are alcoholic or in prison. A typical Payes project child is a 12-year-old boy who has rarely been to school and is illiterate; his mother and grandfather both have cancer, so he has had to assume day-to-day responsibility for his younger siblings. The aim is to keep such youngsters from crime by noticing, befriending, rewarding and supporting them.
Although many Payes children staying at Brathay Hall, Ambleside, are away from home for the first time, homesickness is not a problem. 'I only knew three people from my own school when I got here,' said a wiry-looking lad in broad Scouse, 'but I've made loads of friends from other schools and got to know grown-ups in the police.' A girl with learning and mobility problems said: 'I haven't been homesick, though I thought I would be. I wish we weren't going home tomorrow.'
The rural environment is a new experience for some of these young urbanites, as is working in a team and meeting physical challenges. One girl saw her first deer in Ambleside, although she didn't know what it was. Another stumbled across his first sheep's skull. 'I picked it up when we were ghyll walking. I reckon it died falling down a gully, as it was quite young.'
Payes involves more than adventure: outdoor challenges are combined with practical activities. Last spring, a group of teenagers planted pounds 2,500- worth of trees back in Bootle, paid for by Manchester West Electricity Board (Manweb). All the trees are still in place, despite the incidence of vandalism being 92 per cent higher in Bootle than elsewhere in Merseyside.
The young planters tend their own saplings and won't allow anyone to desecrate what is now a beautifully kept area. They have also taken part in a locally sponsored photography project. Twelve officers have worked alongside the youngsters in local activities as well as at Brathay Hall, forging the healthy and friendly two-way rapport on the streets and in the community that Wilson set out to achieve.
Brathay Hall has hosted four courses for Bootle youngsters this year and two last year. The intention is to offer further incentive challenges each year.
Thus 12 'graduates' from 1993 had the chance to sail for several days on the Irish Sea off Angelsey in September - with a more demanding project in the pipeline for next year. Wilson's long-term plan is that when the first batch of children reach 16 they will be able to train as junior helpers to work at Brathay, assisting the 'new' 12-year-olds, thus channelling the beneficial effects of Payes back into the Bootle community. Each Brathay course costs pounds 2,500 per group, raised by sponsorship from local companies. Payes has also received generous private donations, including one woman who paid for a whole week's course for one group. The Brathay Hall Trust helps by absorbing the infrastructure costs, and some of the children themselves, as they grow in awareness and confidence, are also beginning to raise funds.
Wilson, who has 13 years' police experience behind her, now has a beat on the very places she frequented as a child. 'But I was lucky,' she says passionately, 'my parents were able to push me in the right direction. Had circumstances been different, I could so easily have gone the other way.
That's why I want to put something back for these kids.'
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