Independent Appeal: Rescued from a life of crime by cooking

Emma Jackson had three convictions before she had turned 16. Jonathan Brown hears how Barnardo's gave her a fresh start

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The Independent Online

Sitting in her chef's whites talking animatedly about her morning spent preparing 42 Christmas puddings for steaming, it is easy to see Emma Jackson's passion for her chosen career.

Less than 5ft tall, with braces still on her teeth, the 19-year-old cuts a diminutive figure with a ready smile. She has been hard at work at Dr B's – the restaurant and coffee shop well known to food lovers around the North Yorkshire town of Harrogate for the excellence (and incredible value) of its homemade Whitby fishcakes and smoked applewood cheesecake.

What is perhaps less obvious is the pioneering work it does with disadvantaged young people. Yet had she not summoned all her courage just over a year ago and knocked on the door of the Barnardo's-run initiative to ask for a chance to train as a chef, Miss Jackson has little doubt where she would be now. "I'd probably be behind bars," she says ruefully.

Having grown up in a household plagued by domestic abuse – her mother endured broken bones, so fear became normal for Emma, her older brother and sisters – it was perhaps inevitable that she chose to express her own frustrations first in silence and then in violence. "You just go inwards when you are younger and you are brought up around domestic violence – that's how you deal with it, by just being quiet," she says.

"I got in with the wrong crowd around year eight. I thought I had to big myself up by swearing and being the class clown, and fighting. It didn't do me any good and I got expelled. I was constantly fighting, being disruptive and skipping off with friends – drinking and smoking cannabis."

It was hard for Emma's mother to cope. Working as a night care assistant, she snatched what sleep she could while the children were at school. But in the end Emma's violence spilled over into the home.

"There was a massive family domestic I started," she recalls. "The police came and took me away because of my behaviour. I was anxious and my blood was boiling. I didn't care about the consequences of my actions. I suppose I was on a treadmill that I couldn't get off."

Emma had three convictions before her 16th birthday and was sleeping on a friend's sofa before she was moved to a local authority children's home. It proved an isolating experience. "You have a room key and if you leave your door unlocked you will have nothing left. You keep a lot to yourself because you don't want other residents living there to know your business. They use it against you," she says.

Having sought a new start at college, she received a potentially disastrous setback when she learned that she would never be able to study nursing because of her criminal record. "It felt like I hit a brick wall. I felt tempted to go back to my old life," she says.

That was when Dr B's came along. Founded a quarter of a century ago to help 14 to 24-year-olds with a range of problems, the establishment has helped more than 2,000 youngsters learn the skills to stand on their own two feet. Some, like Emma, have suffered abuse, neglect or homelessness – sometimes all three. Others have conditions such as Down's Syndrome or learning difficulties.

Afterwards, 90 per cent go on to paid employment or work permanently in the voluntary sector. The four full-time staff supervise the young people either working in the kitchen or in its successful outside catering business.

Trish Howard, who has worked at Dr B's for 22 years, said everyone was expected to be in their uniforms by 8.30am and not to leave until the last of the 30 covers a day was served and everything spotlessly clean. "Whatever has happened to them has an effect on their self-belief and confidence. But you cannot change that overnight. It takes time and a lot of hard work," she explains.

Emma admits there have been occasions when she has struggled to turn up for her shift. But the beauty of the project – unlike the world of work where mistakes earn you the sack – means that she can talk through her issues and start again with a clean slate. "I have had more chances than a cat has had lives," she says. "I'm coping because I have been taught more to open up and speak rather than holding it in until it explodes."

Having already passed her NVQ1 in food preparation and cooking, Emma is now applying herself to level two and wants to work full-time in the catering industry. At a recent party to mark the 25th anniversary of Dr B's, Emma made a speech in front of 200 people. She also used the occasion to coin what she believes could be a campaigning slogan for the place which has turned her around. She told her audience: "If your life is crap come to Dr B's."

The charities in this year's 'Independent Christmas Appeal'

Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.

* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It specialises in traumatised children. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with children in extreme situations in a dozen countries – children orphaned by Aids in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, long-term post-conflict disturbance in East Timor, and with Burmese refugee children in Bangladesh and Thailand.

* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes.