As Deputy Team Manager for Blackburn with Darwen’s Young People’s Service (YPS), Andrew Erlam’s priority during lockdown was to keep the borough’s youngsters safe through the Community Champions – Covid Detached Project.
However he soon discovered that his work in planning and delivering the initiative would help him get through the pandemic himself. Here, Andy describes his experience, and the sense of reward he felt as his team brought cohesion back to the community.
“When we delivered the detached work in 2021 I had recently moved up the ladder into my current role of Deputy Manager, so I was in a really good position to work with other agencies and lead on it as I had insight from being involved in detached products on the ground. So as well as planning and implementing the strategy, I went out on detached throughout the project.
“This involved visiting areas in vulnerable wards where young people might gather to provide them with safety advice and public health information around Covid and signpost them to any support they might need. It takes a little bit of guts to approach a group of young people, especially when one of our messages is to be aware of strangers. You need a real skill set to approach, engage and establish trust really quickly to convey those messages. Sometimes you can do a detached session across three parks and see no one. Then another day you could see 140 and be dealing with all the issues within that group.
“There is a definite element of risk. We make sure we have a watertight risk assessment and clear contact line with the police. And we have a WhatsApp group where we share info, for example areas not to visit, where residents are not happy with young people, or people to only approach in the day and not night.
“Some of the work was not Covid-related. There were cases where we saw a risk of exploitation or increased anti-social behaviour which made people scared to go to different areas in their community. So we targeted those areas to make sure children were safe there and gave them safety advice.
“We always take a quote from young people where we can and ask them about the issues that might be pertinent, for example pressure they might be feeling around exams. They always said that without this little bit of help they might not have known where to go for support.
“It’s challenging but rewarding work which was also a support for me during the pandemic. I struggled with not spending time with people, and I hated working at home, so it was great to have the opportunity to liaise with other organisations, even if it was through digital meetings. Working through the same issues and sharing those experiences really helped me through that period, and I still go out on detached now.
“Personally, a huge bonus came from the community fun days we held when restrictions started to get a little bit looser. Communities had been locked in their houses for months and we were able to put on Covid-safe events outdoors, with activities such an enormous climbing wall and inflatables on the lakes in parks. Seeing parents bring young people down, and people just being together again after what they’d experienced was a massive plus point for me.
“Since the pandemic, we’ve been targeting different communities that were more fractured with a focus on community cohesion. We’ve held events over the summer and there’s another planned for half term. I’m proud that our work has been described as a ‘breath of fresh air’ by those we’ve supported, and we aim to maintain this and get some normality back for the young people who were badly affected the pandemic. For me, working and learning together in a really difficult time has been an extremely rewarding experience.”