The Challenge began in 2009 as a way to encourage 16 and 17 year olds to get more involved in their local communities by breaking down social barriers, and is the main provider for the National Citizen Service (NCS). Parents complete an application form and pay a means-tested fee for their children to be part of the scheme for the duration of the Summer holiday. The young people are also required to choose an area of specialism from sport, media, drama, photography and enterprise. In 2013, 14,000 places were offered across the UK including 7,000 in London. I was recruited to the programme in May of this year, as a photography practitioner on the Team Challenge phase. There are four phases:
Personal Challenge: Groups of 60 teenagers are sent to an outdoor activity centre in either Wales, Somerset or the Lake District. They come from the same borough but don't necessarily know each other. They are divided into five teams according to their chosen specialism and they have to bond and work together. Each team has a senior mentor and there are other members of staff on hand, but for many of the young people it's a real shock to the system, meeting new people and coping in the great outdoors - camping, living off basic rations, kayaking and hiking.
Team Challenge: When they return home, the 60-strong cohort stays in university accommodation and learns their chosen skill with a specialist practitioner; Team Perham (sport), Team Edwards (media), Team Reiss (drama), Team Sabesan (photography) and Team Ward (enterprise). I worked with 5 teams in Southwark, Harringey, Tower Hamlets and Hackney teaching them photography over a 2-day period and taking them on a local community visit on both days to apply their photography skills. We went to a care home, a day centre for the elderly, a nursery and a childrens' adventure playground. The young people are introduced to situations they wouldn't normally encounter, developing a whole range of interpersonal skills.
I stayed in the university accommodation with them (along with all the other practitioners, senior mentors and programme leaders). There was no vegetating in front of the TV and the young people were not allowed out unsupervised, so the evenings were spent reflecting on the day's events, playing table tennis or pool and lots and lots of singing and dancing!
On my third (and final) day I help my team produce a showcase for their parents, community partners and other invited guests. Again, the young people are able to develop skills such as communication, delegation and public speaking. I was very impressed with the quality of photographs and my team members put together some very slick slideshows complete with transitions and background music. Many parents spoke to me about how proud they were of their childrens' achievements.
Real Challenge Design: In their teams, the young people organise a local campaign with a charity partner to address an issue that they're passionate about, and pitch to a panel of 'dragons' for funding. They also organise a sponsored activity to raise funds.
Real Challenge Action: The 60-strong cohort is reunited for four weekends to take part in a practical, large-scale project arranged by a charity partner. Due to staff shortages, I was recalled to be a mentor on this phase and accompany one cohort to redecorate the Selby Centre in Tottenham, and another to 'beautify' Epping Forest . Once they complete a set number of hours on their social projects, they graduate and become members of The Challenge Society which works all year round on both team and individual projects. Some graduates also return on future challenges to act as mentors and pass on the skills they've learned.
Unfortunately, the media only seem interested in teenagers who kill, rape or riot. For me personally, it was lovely to see so many young people coping outside their comfort zones, showcasing their talents and making a positive difference to their local communities.
Please leave a comment below. It would also be really great if you could Tweet, 'like' on Facebook or +1 this post using the buttons above.
Thanks for your support!