The café is already quite busy and so Ben and I go into the main space – the nave of the church – and sit on one of the large fake leather sofas that, at other times of the day, are the epicentre for the young people dropping in at The Edge.
Ben talks very precisely, with little hesitation. I ask him to start at the beginning.
“My real father left when I was just three days old and for the next eight months my older brother, my mum and I lived with my nan. Then my mum met my stepdad and they married in 1991, and my dad – my stepdad that is – built a house in Broadclyst out of an old pigsty and some barns. So we moved there when I was one and my half brother and sister were both born there. It was the most boring period of my life.”
The village community website for Broadclyst says its population of just 3,000 live amongst wide flood plains, wooded forest and rolling countryside. Judging by its location on Google Maps, just five miles north of Exeter, parts of it are also within earshot of the drone of traffic on the M5.
“Why did your birth dad leave?” I ask.
“No idea. I’ve had no contact with him for 21 years,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Four years ago he sent a letter via a relative, apologising for all the trouble he has caused. My mum has forgiven him but me and my brother have not.
“I do have a feeling that he might have known I’d be mentally disabled – I’ve got very mild Asperger’s syndrome – so it might have been because of that.”
“But you wouldn’t have been diagnosed until much later?”
“Not until I was nine.”
“Would you like to meet him?”
“I would, but only to ask him why he left. But I’ve had him out of my life for 21 years, so I can have him out for the rest of my life really.”
Ben and his family moved to Brixham when he was nine. “The houses were bigger, it was near the sea and it was much friendlier than Broadclyst. My stepdad works as a handyman so it’s easy enough to get work wherever we are.” In the first summer he signed up for a programme of activities organised jointly by the YMCA and YES, a welcome relief from the boredom of a small countryside village. He was soon involved in a group called HYPA – Helping Young People Achieve – and, as well as getting stuck in to all their activities, helped to write funding bids for the group. “I was even voted in as chairman,” he says, proudly. “I was shocked they voted for me.”
By 17 Ben was heavily involved with the Young Volunteers at YES. This group is a central part of what YES is about. Meeting every week, the participants ranging from 11-25, devise, plan, and run countless community activities. For a family fun day they organised a venue, ordered the bouncy castle and the donkeys, managed the budget, advertised around town and, come the day, ran the entire event themselves. It’s the Young Volunteers that have organised Wednesday’s Brix Awards.
“We do talent shows and craft workshops,” he says, “we also do a project that we call ‘YES-toration’ where we clear older people’s gardens for them. They can donate if they want to but they don’t have to.”
“So,” I ask, “after family and work, is YES really the next big thing in your life?”
“Yes, yes,” he says, “I’ve developed countless friendships here and learnt new skills to help my community. Without YES my teenage years would have been very boring indeed. If you can’t afford to go into Paignton or Torquay for the cinema or whatever then there is absolutely nothing to do in Brixham apart from going for a walk.
“With Young Volunteers, I can wake up in the morning with a new idea, come down here and talk it through with friends, speak to Angela or whoever and then make it happen.”
“And what are you working on at the moment?”
“I’ve got this idea of linking up our group with another youth group somewhere else in the world. We could tell each other what we get up to. And then, in the future, we could raise money to go and visit them and they could do the same. We’re looking at Pasadena High School in California, and then maybe Mombasa High School in Kenya and then we can move on to India, Thailand and Poland.”
Ben completed a two-year travel and tourism course at South Devon College and has been working for Asda since. “I’m mainly a checkout operator and sometimes a self-scan host, and if they need it, I help stacking the chilled products.” He started in Newton Abbott, 13 miles away and one and a quarter hours by bus. Since last October Ben has been working at a new store in Torquay, only a hour away at this time of year but up to three hours away when the nine mile route is clogged with holidaymakers at the height of the season. Today he is on a 1.30-6.00 shift and so is getting the 11.30 bus from the Town Square stop which will give him time to have his lunch in the staff canteen before his shift. He’ll be back for about 7.15.
As we’ve been talking there’s been some commotion over on one of the tables. Two or three young people are attempting to make a Ferrero Rocher pyramid, with little success.