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Helping the youth of Bolton overcome adversity

Homepage Feature — 16th October 2018

Student Story: Hannah Bailie

Although Hannah Bailie had been doing youth work since she was 18 years old, it was her study of theology and youth work as a mature student at Nazarene Theological College (NTC) that revolutionised her understanding of what youth work is.

“Before uni, I thought youth work was adult-led, but actually it isn’t about that,” Hannah says. “It’s about being youth-led. It’s their ideas, and you’re advocating for the young person. You’re giving the young person a voice.”

After graduation from NTC in 2017, Hannah became a part-time detached youth worker for Zac’s Youth Bar, a ministry of the Sycamore Project in Bolton, Greater Manchester. She devotes another 18 hours a week as youth worker for St Paul’s Church, Astley Bridge.

For Zac’s, Hannah’s job is to stroll the streets of Kearsley, Little Lever, Farnworth, Stoneclough, Prestolee and Ringly with another youth worker and talk to young people.

“With detached work you go out and speak to young people, but [before NTC] I didn’t know the informal education part of it. You’re going out with a purpose, strategically, to engage with young people and help them. It’s Helen’s lesson that really got me.”

Hannah credits a lecture at NTC by Helen Gatenby for opening her eyes to the transformative power of “informal education,” a technique she now relies on when she spends time with young people.

“You find a conversation starter to see if they’re going to engage with you, picking up aspects of what they say. Through them talking, you can explore wider,” Hannah explains.

In one example, a young person admits that she has been using drugs. Hannah would ask, “Why do you do drugs? What is behind that?” She might go on to ask, “What do you want to do in your future life? What does that look like? Can you achieve that if you’re using drugs?”

“It gets them thinking and open up more,” Hannah says. “It’s not about preaching or telling them. It’s about them exploring it themselves and asking them the right questions to get them to think about these things.” In this way, Hannah has shifted to a youth-led approach to her ministry.

Hannah says she loves spending time with the youth of economically disadvantaged parts of Bolton, yet, what she sees and hears is also heartbreaking. While strolling through the streets and back alleys, parks and playing fields of Bolton, she sees evidence of drug use everywhere: empty plastic bags that contained marijuana or cocaine, shattered alcohol bottles, blackened tarmac or concrete in parks and at playgrounds where youth have been burning pieces of materials. She points to a used nitrous oxide ‘laughing gas’ dispenser on the sidewalk; a few steps further lies a discarded balloon, both items youth use to get high.

As a detached youth worker, Hannah’s job is to “kind of invade their area,” she says. Discernment is necessary to determine which groups of youth to approach, and who may be open to conversation. Sometimes youth swear aggressively at her; once, fireworks were thrown at her. She’s witnessed drug deals in process, and seen young people intoxicated.

It all is worth it when youth recognize her from a distance and call her over by name, or she earns their trust.

“Now the young people don’t see me as ‘police,’ but trust has been earned and built. They now open up to me. By having this trust, they see me in a different light: they see me as someone who cares for them and wants to see them achieve and do well.”

Hannah’s belief in young people’s potential to overcome adversity comes in part through her own journey to study and graduate in spite of being diagnosed with severe dyslexia.

It was in the process of applying to study for her bachelor’s degree in theology at NTC that Hannah confirmed her diagnosis. Her dyslexia began to cause problems back when she was in school.

“They would say, ‘you didn’t listen’ or ‘you’re a bit slow.’ I got called ‘slow’ a lot when I was younger. I never got any help at all.” When she reached college, Hannah tested for dyslexia. But she says there was no offer of support afterward, so she questioned the diagnosis she was given.  She passed her GCEs with Cs and Ds without any special assistance, which she now realises is a significant personal achievement.

When she sought re-testing before applying to NTC, again the results were clear: she had severe dyslexia. This time, however, she received support. NTC offered a tutor and other educational assistance, including instruction to markers to focus primarily on the content and thinking in her essays, and give her extra time for exams. NTC’s librarian, Helen Stocker, also was available to provide additional support when it was needed.

Hannah credits NTC’s caring community with helping her persevere and succeed in her studies.

“If you got stuck, a friend would come along and say, ‘I’ll help you with this.’ Or if I didn’t understand the question, the friend would say, ‘Let’s break it down and I’ll help you with it.”
“In other universities, you’d just be a number. At NTC, it’s nothing like that at all. Everyone wants to see you do well and they want to push you in a great way. They want to see you and help you succeed, and for me that is special.”