Meet Jessica Kirby, Youth Worker at Berkshire Youth

Jessica Kirby has been a Youth Worker with Berkshire Youth since 2014. Here she reflects on the changes to her work brought about by the pandemic, the challenging and rewarding aspects of youth work, and her own route into it via youth clubs and work experience.
Tell us about Berkshire Youth

Berkshire Youth is a local charity which recently celebrated its 80 year anniversary of supporting the young people of Berkshire. Our role is to support communities in the development of their youth provision, from training volunteers to providing best practice and learning from across the sector. We also directly deliver some services to young people such as leadership and volunteering opportunities, activities and training. Additionally, we support young people directly through some local schools. You may have seen us at Little Heath, Prospect, Maiden Erlegh, Oakbank or maybe Waingels College? We also deliver detached youth work across the area, supporting young people where they hang out (eg in local parks).

How have you adapted your services in response to the coronavirus pandemic?

Youth work is an essential service for some of our most vulnerable young people. So although on a reduced scale, we have been able to continue with many of our services throughout the pandemic. The National Youth Agency provides national guidance that we can follow to ensure we can comply with government guidelines whilst conducting our work.

The pandemic meant we had to change much of the way we were delivering our work. We moved lots of stuff online, whether that was youth groups, training or 1 to 1 work. We set up the Berkshire Youth Hubs to signpost young people, families and youth workers to local clubs, activities and support still available at this time. Within the guidelines we were still able to deliver some elements face to face where needed. Our detached work has remained a constant throughout… so if you see us out and about across Reading say ‘hi’!

Describe a typical working day for you…

Back at the start of the 2020–21 academic year, a typical working day for me was working in schools across Reading and Wokingham, including Maiden Erlegh, Waingels College, Prospect, Oakbank and The Emmbrook. A typical day would include one-to-one sessions with young people to discuss how they found school and the difficulties they were facing which were leading them to be in trouble at school where they were picking up negative behaviour points, detentions and even exclusions. In these sessions, young people would express difficulties in specific lessons or other aspects of the school day where they often found themselves in bother. I would support them as they worked through these issues and helped them to set and work through goals to help them begin to improve and start to make positive changes to their behaviour which would in turn make their school experience more positive.

There have been so many mixed responses, some young people have adapted well to the online schooling as they feel as if they are getting loads of work done, whereas others are missing the day to day routine of being in school and, like lots of us, are bored of looking at the same four walls at home!

Since January and the current lockdown, my typical working day has changed drastically! I am still fortunate enough to be able to do 1 to 1 sessions, but these are now held virtually. It is definitely not the same as face to face sessions with young people, but it has been great to check in with them and catch up on how lockdown is impacting them. There have been so many mixed responses, some young people have adapted well to the online schooling as they feel as if they are getting loads of work done, whereas others are missing the day to day routine of being in school and, like lots of us, are bored of looking at the same four walls at home!

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

The most challenging part of my job is knowing that there are many young people who are disadvantaged and, although I do as much as I can to help them, I cannot change their situation completely and I find it hard to accept that. For me, someone who wears their heart on their sleeve sometimes, it is the emotional element of a young person in distress or a negative situation. Although I can support them and be strong around them, I have had times when I have had to let emotion and frustration around a situation out. Another challenge that is similar to this is not being able to help ALL young people. A lack of funding for youth services is a big part of this as Berkshire Youth have a great team of youth workers in Berkshire schools but, due to funding, we are not able to reach ALL Berkshire Secondary schools. Why is it fair that some miss out?

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is anything face to face with young people. I especially enjoy longer projects where you can see a real, positive difference in them. A big part of this for me is trips! I love taking young people on trips, especially ones that are organised by them! It is great to see young people using skills they have learned to organise a trip for their group. Residentials are also a great part of the job, especially camping trips where young people have to take on a lot of daily responsibilities themselves.

Tell us a little about yourself and your background…

I am 24 and have been with Berkshire Youth since 2014. I grew up with my local youth club after being forced to go (I was always scared to try new clubs/places)! I attended Tilehurst Junior Youth Club throughout primary school from around the ages of 9 to 12. I remember loving going there once I had got into it; there was always something different happening: from cooking, arts and crafts, games, quizzes, sports, activities and anything you could think of. The volunteers there were great – even inventing their own games and teaching young people a number of life skills. I then went back to the club when I was 14 or 15 to become a volunteer myself and it was like I had never left, with still loads going on for young people to get involved in.

It was from my volunteering with Tilehurst Junior Youth Club that I was introduced to Berkshire Youth. First, this was with the SPLAT (Sports, Leisure and Activities Team) where they would come in and run sports activities with the young people – they were always great at getting the young people involved and they asked for them every week! Next, I met the healthy lifestyle co-ordinator who came in to run a healthy lifestyle programme with the young people and young volunteers, when I was around 17. I loved this project and started to quiz her about her job. She offered me the chance to go to Berkshire Youth for a meeting with the CEO, David, to see if I could do some work experience and I did three weeks through July and August when I was lucky enough to experience every project Berkshire Youth had to offer. I went on holiday at the end of August and did not think anything more of it, but I got a phone call with an offer of an interview in the September and, well, I am still here!