Blurred edges

This is Part 2 of the Millie and Me story…

Armed with her financial forecasts and projected footfalls, Sophie applied for a bank loan and was surprised, after she’s supplied all her spreadsheets, that they offered one over the phone. “I’ve never even met my bank manager,” she says.

“So you went from not knowing how anything works to being able to present your case and persuade the bank to loan you £10,000?”

“Yes, it’s amazing isn’t it?”

Once the application for a ‘change of use’ was approved, the lease was drawn up and the shop was theirs. “How long from getting the keys to opening up?” I ask.

“Six weeks,” she says, slowly, as if she’s re-living every moment of it. “We’re still doing the finishing touches.

“I had the decor in mind the moment I walked into the place and we’ve managed to do it just the way I imagined it. Apart from getting someone in to do the electrics, James has done it all. He’s laid the floor, built the kitchen – he’s also a qualified plumber – he’s done everything. I’m so lucky because it’s saved us thousands of pounds in shopfitting.”

On the furthest wall they’ve made a feature of some pink and silver fleur-de-leys-type wallpaper. The pink and white chairs give the place a contemporary feel which is contrasted by the long wooden church pew against one wall. It’s well done.

There’s a chalkboard that’s been promoting today’s specials: individual choritzo pitta pizzas and, for the less adventurous, a cheese and bacon quiche. Another board lists coffees at prices less than our local Costa.

“How did the name Millie and Me come about?”

“That took a long time,” says Sophie. “Millie wasn’t keen at first. But we couldn’t think of anything else and it just seemed to fit so well. She agreed eventually and now she’s really proud of it.”

“And how, do you think, starting up this business has affected you and your daughter?”

“I would say, emotionally, we took a massive risk. The set-up period has been quite stressful for us all and only now are things settling down. Millie is doing much of the baking and earning an income from that.” Millie’s Brownies are a staple on the cakes menu. “In the holidays she’ll come and work with me here. But there’s no obligation, no expectation. She wants to go to college after her GCSEs which would be great. She’s really good at Spanish, and at art and English, she’s got plenty of options.

“Ah, look at these we’ve just got this morning.” Sophie jumps up and grabs an envelope from the top of the counter. “We did a coffee course.”

“A what?”

“We did a course on how to use the coffee machine correctly.” Blimey, I didn’t realise it was so complicated. But, having finished my Americano and wiped the last of the cream from around my mouth, I can appreciate why it’s important to differentiate yourself in a crowded market.

“I hate certificates normally but I’m quite proud of this one. The café was always going to be about the coffee. There are loads of places to eat in Brixham but there is nowhere – in our opinion – that serves really good coffee.

“We choose really carefully – got a good coffee machine and then did the right training – and Millie came with James and I, so she’s got her own certificate. At the moment we are the only three who can do it. Harry thinks he can, but he can never get the milk right. Whereas Millie comes along and makes perfect lattes every time. It’s quite funny.”

“And now, nearly a month after you’ve opened, how does the reality compare with your projections?”

“Pretty much spot on,” she says. “Although, as I said, we’ve been quite pessimistic with our forecast until now. But it’s not Easter yet. We’ve been building up a good bank of regulars and we’ve been giving everyone loyalty cards, you know, a free coffee for every 10 purchases. On Saturday a customer claimed his 11th coffee… and we’d only been open for just over two weeks which just shows we’re getting the repeat business that we need.”

“So, fast forward, do you think this is the first of a chain of coffee shops for you?”

“Oh, I really think there ought to be a Millie and Me in Totnes. We’d fit in there quite well.”

“And, as far as the Neighbourhood Challenge goes, you weren’t one of the winners…”.

“No, but neither do I think we should have been. Although there have been other benefits for both Millie and I, at the end of the day we are a commercial business. I think prizes of £3,500 should be ploughed back into the community rather than support a fledgling business like ours which has to make a profit.”

While I am here, in front of Sophie, I ask her the question that I’ve been asking all week. “What do you think it is that makes YES so special?”

She doesn’t hesitate. “I don’t want to be cheesy but I have to say it’s down to Chris and Angela, as people. Having worked for years in health and social care, both for statutory organisations and in the voluntary sector, where everything is so politically correct and so by the book, sometimes we actually forget we’re dealing with real people. At YES, although they stay totally professional, somehow the edges get blurred, do you know what I mean? I don’t know whether that’s because of them as people or just the way Brixham is, but they will do what is needed, and they do what is right.

“I remember once when I was working as a runaways worker. There was a young person –known to Angela – who was going to be homeless for the night. We couldn’t help her that particular night and she had nowhere else to go and so Angela put her up. And at my work there was uproar – she shouldn’t be doing that, they said – and, at the time, I agreed with my colleagues. But now I see it differently. Angela had known that young person for many years and did not want to see her on the streets even for one night. She was totally professional about it, clear about the boundaries, but she did what was right and I think that is what makes YES so special.”

“It’s the same for every successful community project,” I say, “it’s down to individuals isn’t it? Sometimes the authorities just don’t get it. You can’t put that on a spreadsheet.”

“Yes, exactly.”

“I’m thinking I’d quite like to take a picture of you standing in the window looking out. Would you be up for that?”

That’s all folks! Journey to The Edge was by Len Grant. Thanks for reading.

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Have a cupcake

Come at 4.30, she had said, we’ll be finishing off then and Millie can join us after school. I’m a bit early and Sophie is still clearing up after the last of her coffee shop customers.

“Would you like a drink and something to eat?” she asks, cleaning the nozzles on the huge coffee-making machine behind the counter.

“You know, I haven’t had a cream tea the whole time I’ve been in Devon. Would that be okay, and just with a small Americano?” Millie and Me is building a reputation for the best coffee in Brixham.

After pulling on blue plastic gloves she takes a catering tub of strawberry jam from one of her fridges. “Some people put the cream on first,” she says, “but I prefer the jam and then the cream.”

“Absolutely.”

Once we are sat down at one of the small tables in the large window I ask Sophie how this collaboration with her 15-year-old daughter began.

She tells me that she has always been interested in catering and gets a buzz from organising themed events, preparing all the food and seeing that everything runs smoothly. “I’ve organised friends’ weddings and that sort of thing but have never charged for doing it. It’s been my passion.”

For the whole of her professional career, until now, Sophie has worked in health and social care. She’d been a runaways’ worker for a children’s charity and then – when she needed to be around more for Millie – she’d cut her hours and taken a part-time job as a scheme manager in sheltered housing scheme. “Working with older people instead of young people,” she says, “but using all the same skills!”

“This time last year we organised a fundraising event,” she explains, getting back to the catering business. “We prepared a massive hot and cold buffet for over 100 people, managed all the lighting and live music. Everything.”

It seems the whole family was involved. Sophie’s husband James, local policeman by day, got stuck in, fetching and carrying; Millie helped with the food preparation (it was all done from their own kitchen at home) and 17-year-old Harry (last night’s compere), was master of ceremonies. “It was a brilliant evening,” says Sophie, “really good.”

With both their children involved with YES and both she and James trustees on the YES board – their professional backgrounds no doubt most valuable to a charity working with marginalised young people – Sophie recalls that she was aware of the Neighbourhood Challange but hadn’t considered the potential it offered.

“It needed Angela to point it out,” she says. “She had seen what we’d done at the fundraiser; she knew that Millie lacked confidence. She also knew that Millie was a brilliant baker and she thought if we could set up a catering business together then maybe Millie would grow in confidence and self-belief if she saw us achieving something together. That, really, was the seed.”

I’m about to ask about Millie when Sophie’s phone rings. It’s the same tone that I use on my own phone for the alarm and it makes me jump.

“Excuse me,” she says, leaving the table. “Hello.”

It’s Millie. It seems she’s not feeling great and unable to make it. Fair enough.

The Neighbourhood Challenge, and Angela’s encouragement, was the catalyst that prompted Sophie and her family to take a big risk. The biggest risk, possibly, of any of the Challenge participants.

“Millie and I went to Outset, the business training people, on Monday nights where we did forecasting and business planning. That was fantastic, so inspiring.

“At home I’ve never had any interest in the household finances. I would never know how much our water costs, or how much we pay for electricity. James handles everything and I’ve always been quite happy with that.

“At Outset I had an hour and a half’s training on how to write a business plan and a financial forecast. It took me about a week to do ours, but I did it.” She’s animated now, proud of her achievements. “I look after all our spreadsheets and I’m responsible for everything.”

“How did you come to find this place? Was it already a coffee shop?”

“The week after we started our business training we saw this in the local paper. We couldn’t have afforded to take on the lease of an existing coffee shop but this had been offices for the Herald Express and, if we could get the ‘change of use’ [formal agreement from the council’s planning office], I knew we could convert it for next to nothing.”

They were encouraged to do market research by the business training agency and so, Sophie says, everyone was again roped in. “We sat in different cafés around Brixham for an hour at a time: in the mornings, in the afternoons, and in the evenings. We sat there on weekdays, we sat there at weekends and we counted how many people they served in that hour to give us an idea of what we might expect. Then we slashed the numbers because we wanted to be as pessimistic as possible.”

More from the café on Friday at 2pm.

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Not your traditional leftie

Andrew runs his own engineering company out of a two-storey building tucked behind a block of flats on a housing estate. In the workshop on the ground floor a couple of his employees are tinkering with small circuit boards. Upstairs two offices lead from the top of the staircase. In the general office I’m introduced to Charmaine who asks if I would like a drink. At one end of this room is a long work bench with more circuit boards connected to boxes of unfamiliar electronic equipment. This, Andrew tells me, is his personal research and development department.

Before we sit down to chat in the second office which Andrew and his wife Katrina share, I can see this is not a conventional office environment. “So how many dogs do you have?” I ask.

“Katrina and I have got two: Flora and Eric. Kevin brings Barney most days and Jamie brings Dylan. Sometimes George will bring Charlie. But Charmaine never brings her dog in, do you?” he says, as Charmaine pops in to ask about sugar.

“He’s a bit nervous, isn’t he?” says Andrew. “He doesn’t like crowds.”

Once we are settled with our mugs of tea Andrew tells me something of his career. Armed with a degree from the University of Essex he’s spent many years moving around the country involved, in one capacity or another, in the management of engineering companies.

“I worked in Manchester for a time,” he says. “In Gorton, opposite the car auction place.”

“On Hyde Road?” I say.  “Yes, I know where you mean.”

He and his young family moved to South Devon with his work in the ’90s. “This area was like a mini-Silicon Valley then,” he says, “it was enjoying what’s called a ‘opto-electronic’ boom.”

Apparently one electronics company in Paignton employed 5,000 skilled workers (the town has a population of just 48,000), until the boom flipped to bust and, within a week, that company had a workforce of just 500. Like the pit villages and steel towns before it, reliant on a single industry or even a single employer, the town was devastated. Andrew headed a satellite of an international supplier which was in the supply chain. It was hit hard.

“I was told to sack everyone,” he says, “close down the factory and then sack myself!” As part of his severance deal Andrew negotiated the purchase of the firm’s van, some tools, a computer and, most importantly, a small contract with one of his most valued customers.

“I was asked to design a timer for a washing machine,” Andrew recalls, “and soon I was designing and making all sorts of coin-operated equipment.” That was over ten years ago. His biggest market now is landlords of student properties who install boxes next to their tumble dryers and washing machines.

I make some movement that offends Flora and she snaps at me. “Flora!” shouts Andrew, half-heartedly. I move on with my questions.

“How did you get involved with YES?”

“A few years ago our three boys, all enthusiastic musicians, wanted to go busking in Brixham town centre to supplement their pocket money. We weren’t that keen but compromised…” – life with teenagers – “and said they could as long as the proceeds went to charity.

“Within a few hours they had raised over £100 for the local hospice and made quite an impression. Formal bookings followed and they raised a chunk of money within a few months. They were then unexpectedly invited to the Brix Awards, that was back in 2005, and were presented with an award for their charity work.”

Their eldest son, James, subsequently became a young volunteer followed by his brothers. Katrina was invited to become a trustee and then, at an annual general meeting of the charity and without warning, Andrew found himself nominated and seconded as chair of trustees.

It was a good choice: he and his family were immersed in the charity and so could see how it benefitted the town’s young people; he was his own boss, able to put in the days and days of additional lobbying, application writing and unseen administration; and, most importantly, his heart was in the right place.

“I used to think I was a traditional leftie, but now I think I’m more of an anarchist,” he admits, “but not the bomb-throwing kind… I’ve just become more disillusioned with the political process over the years.”

I ask about the NESTA project, whether NESTA themselves would consider, now that it’s over, that their money has been well spent.

“They gave us £150,00 to run the project. We must have had a couple of hundred people either directly or indirectly involved, probably more. If you think about it purely in terms of the cost savings from the health and social care budgets alone, then it’s been hugely beneficial.”

Andrew shares some stories of people involved with the Challenge, people of all ages who were facing difficult times in their lives and feeling emotionally isolated.  Since their involvement, they have been able to reconnect with their families and community.  “You can’t put a price tag on that,” he says.

Andrew is very clear about the benefits of not only the Challenge but about the Brixham YES project generally. “It’s to do with prevention and early intervention,” he says. “If someone is on a particularly destructive path and we manage to divert them then there are all sorts of things that aren’t going to happen.

“They’re potentially not going to end up in a young offenders institution, costing £45,000 a year. They’re potentially not going to get drunk or high and hit someone else in a road accident. Their potential victim therefore won’t lose their job, need disability benefit and, in turn, their children won’t be adversely affected. All these things aren’t going to happen because that young person came down to The Edge, sat down and did a bit of woodwork with Sean, or was taught how to use a lathe and kept on coming rather than going down a different path.

“We can look back at our own lives and see there are lots of forks in the road, lots of turning points. If you can create a turning point for a young person, and nudge them in the right direction, then you know you are doing good.

“I know for my own son, James, that going to YES was a turning point. He failed the 11-plus and went to school across the water in Dartmouth. That might have been idyllic – a lovely ferry trip to school each day – but all his mates lived in Dartmouth and so he became isolated back here in Brixham.

“Going to YES, completely changed him. He was a young volunteer, learnt to play the guitar, became a trustee and organised band nights with new friends. He is now at university and plays with his brother in a relatively successful band in Reading.

“I really believe YES change the direction of his life. Who’s to say if he hadn’t done then maybe he wouldn’t have gone to university and might have ended up as one of those kids who sits in their room and doesn’t want to come out.”

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A profession from a passion

… this is Part 2 of Kyle’s story…

“Can I ask you to start at the beginning. Where were you born?”

“I was born in Torbay hospital,” says Kyle. “And I’ve lived in Paignton all my life. My mum is half Iranian and my parents split up when I was still a baby. My dad lives in Torbay.”

“Have they had new partners since?’

“My mum re-married. Her new husband came into my life when I was 5 or 6 and they split up a couple of years ago when I was 18. My mum hasn’t taken that well.”

“And how is your relationship with your mum?”

“We used to be really close. But when I decided to go my own way and make my own decisions she didn’t support me. When I said I was going to leave college and teach parkour she said, you’re not going to get anywhere in life with this. She said, you’ll end up working in MacDonalds. My dad – my birth dad – was really supportive. He said, this could be really good, this could be big, you could accomplish a lot with this.

“So I’ve drawn closer to my dad over this but I’m more of a loner now. I have my girlfriend and I stay with her family and sometimes with my nan – my mum’s mum who lives in Brixham – but for the most part I like to be on my own.”

“You don’t see your mum?”

“No. I moved out… was kicked out.”

“You don’t talk to her now?”

“I haven’t spoken to her properly for about a year, but my nan makes me from time to time. My nan is a scary lady,” he says with a smile, “so I listen to her. My mum was 17 when she had me and my nan used to look after me when my mum went back to college and, over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time with her in Brixham.”

“So did you go to YES when you were younger?”

“No, I never went to any youth clubs. I was either playing video games or getting into trouble.”

“Doing what?”

He laughs. Laura laughs. “Things I shouldn’t have been doing.”

As visitors come and go, to look at the exhibition of Singer sewing machines or marvel at the ornate interior, Kyle tells me his passion for parkour started at school and he was inspired by the Jump London and Jump Britain documentaries on TV. He and his mates raised money to bring some of the top British free runners into school to give them lessons.

After his GCSEs Kyle completed a two-year media diploma and was in the middle of another in outdoor adventure sports when the local leisure group spotted a piece about him in the paper.

“They run all the leisure centre in the area and asked if I’d do some voluntary stuff for them on youth nights. That was the beginning really.”

He then started to get busy, running private lessons for individuals and groups and so decided to give up college but nor before he was awarded a subsidiary diploma for his outdoor adventure course.

“Has your mum ever seen what you do?” asks Laura.

“Good question,” I say, a little too patronisingly.

“Yes. My mum didn’t think I would make a living out of what I enjoy but is really proud of me now. There’s still a lot of friction because I guess she doesn’t want to admit that she was wrong.”

The sun breaks through the grey clouds. “That’s just typical,” I say, “the sun always comes out as soon as you finish the shoot.”

The Neighbourhood Challenge came at a good time for Kyle. Yes, he was making some money from private lessons but hadn’t quite turned his passion into a workable business proposition. “The kick start cash paid for some specialist scaffolding and gym equipment. That’s allowed me to start teaching and to do shows all around the bay. The NESTA grant definitely help me expand the business and make me more well-known. I’ve got my own website now and a portfolio of pictures.”

“Did you do any of the business training with Outset,” asks Laura, who has been through the same process with her community photography proposal. “Yes,” says Kyle, “but not at Brixham. I did mine in Paignton. They gave me loads of advice about advertising, coming up with business ideas, managing your time. I’m always working. I’ve been ill recently – ’flu, bronchitis – and my girlfriend thinks it’s because I work too much.”

“It sounds to me like you’ve really grown in confidence over the past year. Do you think that’s because you’ve started to make more money from it?” I say.

“If I could I would do it for free. I don’t like the concept of money. I wish everything was free and everyone did stuff for one another. People would be a lot happier that way. Unfortunately, in the world we live in, I can’t.”

“So, are you making it pay? Are you bringing in a wage?”

“I’m quite happy with what I’m earning at the moment. It’s enough. I’m really proud of what I have accomplished over the last year or so, but I’m always aiming to do more.”

“What would you had done if you had won the £3500 prize?”

“I would have bought more equipment and maybe started my own youth club. I think I’d be good at that. Even now, when I’m teaching parkour, some of them talk to me about things they wouldn’t discuss with their parents. They trust me. Sometimes they confide in me and I’m fine with that. There were times when I didn’t have anyone to talk to, so it’s good to be there for them.”

“How did you feel about not being a winner?”

“It didn’t bother me that much. I have enjoyed meeting people and enjoyed what I’ve accomplished with the amount of money I’d received. Also, I’ve since heard I’ve won two more grants so everything is moving forward.”

Aware of my tight schedule Laura and I say our goodbyes and head back to the car park. My next appointment is with Andrew, the chair of Brixham YES and Laura kindly points out where he works before I drop here back in Brixham.

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Getting his business off the ground

The posters, leaflets and press articles about the Neighbourhood Challenge past Kyle by. On the days he was in Brixham the parkour enthusiast would more likely be doing forward rolls along Fore Street to strengthen his shoulders. It would drive his girlfriend mad.

“I was doing some jumps around Brixham when someone from YES saw me and told me about the Challenge competition, said it was about developing young entrepreneurs and suggested I apply. That was when my parkour business was just getting off the ground and so the timing was just right.”

“So what’s the difference between parkour and free running?” I ask him when we meet the morning after the Brix Awards.

“Well, there’s not supposed to be any difference but as they have developed parkour has become more popular with purists who focus on efficient movement rather than fancy flips. Free running is more about the big flips that look impressive.”

Laura and I have come to the ornate but decaying Oldway Mansion in Paignton, a 15-minute car journey along the bay from Brixham. The original house was built in the 1870s as a family home for Issac Singer of sewing machine fame. Forty years later one of his sons re-modelled the house in the style of the Palace of Versailles, all pillars and tall, recessed windows. The multi-layered gardens were laid out with low walls and shallow steps, perfect training ground for a traceur, the right name, apparently, for a practitioner of parkour.

I’m not good at sports photography. I like my subjects to stay relatively still. I can see this is going to be a challenging shoot. And it’s a grey morning. I decide to use flash off the camera and underexpose the background so my main light is a flashgun that I ask Laura to hold at an angle.

“Are they all right with you jumping all over their walls?” I ask as Kyle starts to clamber over the century-old masonry. Oldway Mansion is now offices for Torbay Council. As well as a museum of sewing machines and a café, the luxurious upstairs rooms are used for weddings and civil partnerships.

“Oh yeah,” says Kyle, “I find if you can explain to people what you were doing you’re much more likely to get them on your side. I teach young people to respect their environment, it’s their training ground after all. I teach them to clean up after themselves, to attempt to fix things if they are broken and not to run away if they are approached by the police or security teams. It’s always better to explain what you are doing and earn respect from others.”

Kyle is keen to be photographed. He repeats his moves, one, two, three times. I eventually get something that works. I only need a couple of shots, nobody will see the out-takes.

“So, have you ever hurt yourself?” I ask, buying time while I review the images on the camera screen and adjust my settings.

“Last year I damaged the ligaments in my leg and couldn’t walk for a week. It’s indescribably painful. I was on loads of painkillers. Luckily I heal quite quickly. Within a week I was jumping around again. Oh, and I fractured my collarbone once but didn’t realise it until several weeks later. I have a very high pain threshold.

“But this sport is safer than football. It is so insanely safe, it just looks dangerous. The way we train, the way we focus: I teach kids about starting small and building confidence before working up to bigger moves. With the right physical abilities, mental attitude and confidence, it’s as easy as picking up a pen and writing.”

With 30 or 40 digital images on my card – two or three of which I feel happy with – I suggest we get coffees from the café so I can put my tape recorder in front of Kyle.

We take our drinks and find a table on the veranda. It’s a veranda with a history. Maybe King George VI walked across here in 1943 when he visited RAF cadets training to be fighter pilots. Or maybe the actress Vanessa Redgrave had a couple of scenes out here in 1968 when she made a bio-pic about the dancer, Isadora Duncan.

Read more from Kyle on Monday at 2pm.

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And the winner is…

And so, although the prize winners were announced some time ago it’s now time to formally present some of those over-sized cheques. Rachel’s up first, thankful no doubt that she is not expected to say anything. She poses with her cheque and is off. Next is Mara who’s a winner with the Edge Training Kitchen; Sean’s Upcycling idea is about taking recycling to the next level; Jade and Victoria from Juicy Theatre seem overwhelmed with their presentation, both with matching, beaming smiles.

After only three days in Brixham, I have been fortunate to have heard some inspiring stories and when Mark and his son Aryden grasp their cheque and each other I can see in Mark’s eyes just how much this moment means to him. Their project is much more than leek and potato soup with careers advice.

Finally the Berserkers consume the small stage as they all troop up together to collect their prize. Never one to miss an opportunity I’m sure, Casey takes the microphone and adds his own vote of thanks to YES, to the judges, to the community.

There are certificates and a photo opportunity too for those who didn’t make the top six. Not everyone is represented and, although I know Laura is here somewhere taking pictures, I notice that neither she nor Ntembe step forward to get certificates. I guess Laura is more comfortable behind her camera than in front of mine.

Next, and most appropriately, someone steps up to make a speech about Chris from YES. As a victim of the ‘cuts’, Chris is being made redundant from Torbay Council’s Youth Service and so her tenure at The Edge – as a paid worker by the council at least – is coming to an end. We hear how much Chris has done over the years for this community, for this town’s young people. As the adoration continues I realise someone hasn’t shown up tonight. Becky should be hearing this. A few hours earlier I saw her getting ready and leave her flat, taking Erin May to her mother’s. She should be on her feet now with the rest of them, in amongst the standing ovation. I know she’d be singing For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow at the top of her voice, if she were here. Something – another crisis maybe – has kept her away.

And so the Brix Awards come to their conclusion: the presentation of the Brix – or gold-sprayed building bricks tied with red ribbon – to those in the community who have inspired, encouraged or generally done well by local young people. The winners have been kept secret until now and so Tanny is delighted when hers is one of the names called out to step forward and receive her ‘playful brick’ for her ceaseless commitment to children and the importance of play in young lives.

As the evening draws to an end – it’s been nearly four hours since Rhianan and I stepped through the French windows – it has felt as if a town’s anxieties and insecurities have been put on hold, shelved until at least tomorrow morning when the work of supporting this community continues.

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It’s not about the money

It’s a fast-flowing evening and there’s lots to get through. Harry is on the microphone now, our compere for the evening. He’s a natural. I can see him presenting Blue Peter before long. “Look underneath your tables and bring out the chocolates and the green pyramid thing,” he is telling us. The Ferrero Rocher pyramid game doesn’t take much explanation. “Wait for it to table 5! Okay, all ready? On your marks… Get set… Go!”

I abandoned my teammates and flit between tables with my camera, capturing some of the mayhem that ensues. Faced with a green sponge pyramid, a few boxes of chocolates and some cocktail sticks some find this game more difficult than others. Table 11 – with Sarah and Rachel – have a method. Some on their table insert sticks into chocolates and then pass them onto others who quickly building up the pyramid from its base. It’s a division of labour that proves effective and soon there’s an ecstatic cheer from their table. Extra points on the scoreboard for them.

Other Brixham groups take a turn on the stage – church youth clubs, a samba band, the swimming and life-saving society. All say a few words, give out certificates to their participants and generally celebrate the achievements of the young people of this little fishing port. Rhianan comes out, gets a special mention and an award from another group for inspiring some music and play project. She takes it all in her stride but is clearly made up.

Next Charlotte and Matt are back telling us about their plans for a 120-mile sponsored walk across Devon in aid of YES. “You can sponsor us the whole distance,” Charlotte is saying, “or per mile.”

“Thank you,” says Chris, now on the mike. “It’s so amazing that you want to do this. It’s such a long way and it’s not going to be easy. We’re so grateful.” And then, half-heartedly, “We might come along some of the way with you – not very far – but we might join you for a short while.”

Before a musical interlude Harry is explaining another game, something they have called the Table Challenge. Crepe paper, red corrugated cardboard, pipe cleaners – the sort of things you’d get an assortment pack from an art shop – is being handed out to each table. “During the break we want you to invent some new pointless item out of your art materials. Something posh but also totally pointless. And there’ll be prizes for the winners.”

Meanwhile Toni and Freya leave our table and take their turn in the spotlight, glancing at each other as they belt out Jesse J’s Price Tag with a karaoke track as accompaniment. They’ve been practicing all week.

Their rendition goes well and there’s get a massive cheer as they finish. They flop down in their chairs, still mouthing the lyrics, relieved it’s all over but delighted with the reaction. Job done.

Before we get down to the serious business of distributing the Neighbourhood Challenge prizes and announcing the winners of this year’s Brix Awards, Harry gets people up on stage yet again, this time to show off their pointless posh inventions. There’s a hammock for a beard, a posh hat for a glass, a medieval firework. “How does that work then?” The cucumber sandwich holder and spiral staircase for flies seem to tie for first place although there is friendly dissent from the table that ‘invented’ a bow tie for a Bentley. “Congratulations to you all. Some delightfully pointless posh items there. Well done!”

Andrew, chair of trustees for YES, is up on his feet now, remembering twelve months ago when the Nesta Neighbourhood Challenge was first launched. “Many of us have been pushed way out of our comfort zones this last year,” he says. Knowing what I now know about the Challenge in Brixham, they have certainly packed a lot in.

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Tossing the tifta

If the forecast is to be trusted the weather turns tomorrow and so the next hour or so is my last opportunity to complete some picture postcard images around the harbour. I wander round in the sunshine, snapping children’s fishing nets, stacks of lobster pots, postcard racks. I’m an amateur photographer on holiday and it’s a welcome diversion.

After I change into my ‘tux’ I walk around the harbour again – a little more self-consciously this time – and stop at Nick’s Fish bar. Nick and his assistant don’t comment on my ‘posh’ appearance as I order a small fish with chips to take out. They’ve no doubt seen it all. “Salt ’n’ vinegar?”

The channel is looking calm beyond the breakwater tonight and the water could be inviting in different circumstances. A couple of hundred yards further along and, with the last of the salt wiped unceremoniously from my face, I arrive at the hotel and am confronted at first by a pheasant strutting across the front lawn and next by Rhianan at the front entrance suggesting I photograph her in all her finery, which I am happy to do.

Back in the 1850s this place used to be home to Reverend Francis Lyte, vicar of the town’s All Saint’s church. Then it was his private residence – Berry Head House – and when he was near to dying the story has it that he looked across the harbour towards Torquay at dusk and was inspired to write Abide With Me.

In his time the Reverend might have been invited to the Brix Awards, might even have won a Neighbourhood Challenge prize. When he came to Brixham in 1824 he set up its first Sunday school and each year organised an ‘annual treat’ for up to 1,000 Sunday schoolchildren (surely the whole town and more) where a short religious service was followed by tea and a sports day.

Rhianan and I walk around the outside of the hotel into the main function room where 16 tables are beautifully laid out with a single rose at each setting. As we arrive the last minute preparations are practically complete with scripts fine-tuned and boxes of chocolates being pushed under the tables.

Soon young volunteers are standing either side of the entrance to welcome their guests. Casey and the Berserkers get a round of applause for their outrageous outfits. Surely they can’t wear those all evening.

Dragan, Izzy and Will – in their best ‘posh’ outfits – kick off the evening with a choreographed introduction and give everyone a flavour of what’s to come in the eighth annual Brix Awards.

Next Angela and Chris take the mikes, encouraging all the young volunteers to the front. Some are more willing than others. Sammy is here and Ben, both clearly enjoying themselves. There is Toni and Freya, Millie and Rhianan, Kerrie and a couple of dozen more who I haven’t seen before this evening. When they are finally together there’s barely room on the small stage for them all.

Once they have been introduced and congratulated, volunteers Charlotte and Matt stay up front and explain the first game. Yes, this is an evening of awards, commendations and speeches but also music, singing and silly games. An array of large floppy hats appear and Charlotte demonstrates the task ahead. “We call this game Toss the Tifta,” she says. It is a ‘posh’ theme after all. “Stand on this side of the stage and toss a hat onto your partner’s head.” She throws a hat towards Matt who ducks down in an attempt to catch it. “It’s a bit like throwing a frisbee,” continues Charlotte. “So let’s have a couple from each table to come on up.” For an icebreaker – although I’m not sure an icebreaker is needed – Toss the Tifta works well.

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“The best bit…”

“Tell me something about winning the award, what was that like?”

“Stunning,” says Mark, “absolutely stunning. I was amazed at how the Challenge had actioned so much. When I heard we were one of the winners I was overwhelmed. I knew we had made progress but didn’t think we’d actually made the top six. The idea of judging it was  bit alien to me because there were so many worthy projects but I’m pleased we’ve got the capital.”

“Two things: what would you have done if you hadn’t won and what will you spend the money on?”

“If we hadn’t won we would have applauded those who had. It wasn’t as if we were going to just walk away, we are integral to what YES does and we have the support of the trustees here at The Edge. We are all passionate about what we are trying to achieve with this. And the money? We are going to do some strategic planning to make sure that chunk of money is well used, potentially to search for match funding. That prize is now proof to others that we are achieving something special, that it’s got legs. Hopefully our model should be attractive to other funders too.”

“And what has been the best bit for you?”

Mark doesn’t hesitate. “The best bit,” he says, holding back a tear, “has been doing it with my son. It’s been amazing. This time last year I was in a difficult place, personally. So it’s been a vehicle for me to start thinking positively again.”

Until now we’ve had the café to ourselves. As our conversation draws to a close, a middle-aged man walks in.

“Are you looking for a brew?” asks Mark.

“Yeah. Go on then. I’ll have a coffee.”

“How do you take it?”

“Black please.”

I’ve been trying to find a few minutes to nip over the road and photograph Becky and Erin-May. Angela called this morning and Becky apparently had not had a good night with her baby… and her ex had been round. It’s now late afternoon and Angela has telephoned again. I’m given the nod. Outside, as well as declaring Aryden’s menu, the chalkboard today reads, ‘Enjoy life’s simple pleasures’.

As Becky is getting herself ready for tonight’s do she tells me a bit more about her turbulent relationship. “I know where he’ll be now,” she says. “In the garden of some pub, in the sunshine, with his mates.” Erin-May is in her walker, making best use of the wooden floor now the rug has been rolled up. “Our relationship was crazy. It was like Eastenders, Coronation Street and Shameless all rolled into one.”

Becky looks out of her window at The Edge. Most people have left now, either to prepare the function room at The Berry Head Hotel, or to get their posh frocks on. “Do you know how nice it is to watch all the stuff out of my own window? Once, when I’d just split up with my daughter’s father and Angela had been counselling me, I lifted up my blinds one morning and there was a chalk picture of a big love heart with an arrow through the middle saying, ‘Firing arrows of love over to Becky and Erin-May’. Just little things like that. I just wept it was so cool.”

I can’t get over how eloquent Becky is, how open, how easily she tells a story, her story. “You know you should write things down,” I suggest.

“I’ve thought about that. At night when she’s asleep – she’s down by 7.30 – I’ve got nothing to do, I’m bored.” I tell her about blogging, about the blogs that mums (and dads) write. Although she has no computer she could use the one across the road at YES except, of course, she needs to be home, babysitting.

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A magic wand?

This is the continuation of the BYTES story (see The false gâteaux)

Mark is still clearing up in the kitchen and so as not to inconvenience him too much I suggest I wire him up, attach the microphone to his apron and pop the tape recorder in his pocket. While tackling the pans, he says his background is working with marginalised young people, mostly 16-24 year-olds but sometimes younger. He’s supported those in the criminal justice service, those in secure care or excluded from school. Until now he’s been employed by local authorities or by national organisations with local contracts. BYTES is the first time he’s helped set up an independent project from scratch and, he admits, he’s finding it very exciting.

“When Ayrden came to me with the idea last summer I wasn’t motivated to do much, certainly nothing new. He came round one evening and said, have you seen this? We should do something. He explained his idea and we stayed until two or three the next morning writing the proposal – it was due in the next day – and BYTES was born out of that.”

“Aryden said you wouldn’t mind him saying that your relationship hasn’t always been straightforward.”

“Not at all.”

“Tell me something about that.” Mark hesitates, thinks where to begin.

“Just after Aryden turned 18 it got to the point where it was difficult for us both to be under the same roof. I was living with my partner at the time – we’ve since separated – and two of my other children. We were a family of five. After a couple of incidents we sat down and I said it was probably a good idea if he found somewhere else to live because I didn’t think the situation was going to get better in the short term. He agreed and since then has not lived at home.

“Our relationship went through a very difficult patch for about a year after that, very difficult, but since then I think it has got a lot stronger and him coming to me with the idea of working together on BYTES has been inspiring.”

“As a dad, that must have felt good, that he came back and suggested the idea to you?”

“Yes. It’s actually turned things around for us both. For the last five years, since he left home, he’s been the one who has sought motivation from me but this time he was so enthused by his idea he has motivated me when I was at a low point. I was still adjusting to the fact that my family had broken up completely around 18 months before: my partner had moved to Australia with my eldest daughter and I was at home with our youngest son. Things were very different for me and I was still adjusting to that… and Ayrden came in the door and injected some enthusiasm and energy into my life, so we went for it.”

“Mark, tell me about BYTES.”

Mark switches from personal to professional. “BYTES is a connecting point for young people to talk about their direction,” he says. “It’s not necessarily employment focussed, or vocationally focussed. It’s about supporting young people to find some direction, to start believing in themselves. We meet a lot of young people who don’t have any self-belief and don’t really know what’s out there for them.”

I play devil’s advocate. “But what can you offer them? I’ve heard employment prospects are limited in Brixham. Have you got a magic wand?”

“No, no, I don’t have a magic wand but people have said they have seen a real change in young people after talking to me or working with Ayrden. They are more positive, more excited about their prospects.” Mark is getting passionate now about what they can achieve. “The magic wand is community, the magic wand is the open door, the acceptance of people for who they are, that’s the magic wand. It’s not about anything I do or say. It’s this place, the people, the whole combination of things.”

This project has only been established for five months, the first two saw Mark and Ayrden get to grips with what BYTES was going to be about, setting aims and objectives, putting the word out.  The first attempt at promoting themselves, directly to the young people, was not a success. Since then they have changed tack and now coordinate with third parties who refer their clients to the kitchen at The Edge.

“We now have over 20 young people on our books, getting our support, accessing vocationally-based training, coming here to improve their numeracy and literacy skills, building their self-confidence and making themselves more employable.

“Ayrden is the hub of what happens in this kitchen,” Mark is now saying as he dries his hands. “Next month he’ll be running his NVQ food prep courses and I’ll be taking the helicopter view of where BYTES needs to develop: putting out feelers and making connections.”

The second half of Mark’s story is on Friday at 2pm.

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