Rather than in installments, Becky’s story is published in full. You’ll see why…
A few minutes later Becky has made us all hot drinks and we take them upstairs to her living room on the first floor. It looks out over The Edge.
Her baby daughter is having a nap and so we have time to chat. Becky and I sit on the expansive settee and Laura takes up a position opposite so she can take pictures. “What’s your daughter called?” I ask as an opener.
“Erin-May. She’s a little beauty, she’ll be nine months old next Friday.”
Becky is used to having to explain. “Erin after Erin Brockovich who I really admire – an amazing woman – and May because I was having a conversation with my mum one day and she mentioned her birthday being in May and that just sounded nice: Erin-May.”
“You don’t live with her dad?”
“No, we split up in October.”
The conversation is not going in the direction I had intended. My fault. I change course.
“I’m really keen to hear how your involvement in YES has changed you as a person,” I say.
Becky doesn’t hesitate. “It’s changed my life,” she says, straight out. “But it’s not YES, it’s the people who work for YES. For me, it’s been about the people who work there.”
I ask Becky to start at the beginning.
“When I was 11 I got thrown out of primary school.”
She laughs and pauses for a moment or two. “People are going to think bad of me.”
“You don’t have to say, you don’t need to tell me.”
“No, I will. My father had just been sent to prison and the whole school knew about it.
I turned into a bit of a rebel and one day beat up a girl in the playground. I was sent to the headmistresses’ office and she told me I’d turn out just like my father and so I attacked her, trashed her office and got thrown out of the school.”
“Are you happy for me to write about this?”
“Yes, anything. I don’t mind.”
“Take me back at bit,” I say. “Before your dad went to prison, you were living with both your parents?”
“… and my three brothers and my sister. When Dad went to prison the whole family dynamic changed. One of my brothers decided to become a traveller and just set off. Another brother moved in with my grandparents in Malden and the other brother and sister stayed at home. I rebelled and was put into voluntary foster care for my own safety although, at the time, I didn’t see it like that.”
“What was foster care like?”
“Eventful,” she says with a smile. “Emotionally it was not rewardIng, financially it was extremely rewarding.” I’m left to read between the lines. “As a young person who was part of a big family to then find myself in someone else’s family… I felt as if I’d been abandoned. You know, like the black sheep. It’s possibly the worst feeling I’ve had in my whole life.”
“Were you back at school at this point?”
“I refused to go to school and would only do tutoring. They brought tutors to whichever foster home I was in but I never got on with any of them. It didn’t really work out.”
“Where was your foster home?”
“Everywhere. My longest foster home was in Newton Abbot and that was for about 11 months. Every other one has been shorter than that.”
Becky got involved with YES when they were asked, presumably by social services, to recommend a tutor who could work with this troubled girl. “They found this bloke called Robert Hunt. He was a youth worker and had never tutored anyone before. I remember when we met – I got an awesome vibe off him – I was smoking a rollie and he said he smoked tobacco too, didn’t like straight fags, and that was it, I just clicked with him. I was there at every session, on time.”
“How old were you then?”
“Must have been coming up to 12.”
Back then YES had started to run a Thursday night youth café in their upstairs space next to the council offices. “It was the only place in Brixham where young people could get together, chill out and have a brew,” says Becky. “I used to run away from my foster home to come and meet my mates. It was that important to me.”
As a refuge from a turbulent youth, Becky was relying more and more on the support offered by YES. “I’d go there whenever I needed head space, a lot of young people did the same. It was a safe place.”
Once she turned 16 and left foster care it was YES who coordinated with social services and helped Becky find a flat. They helped her write a CV too, so she could get a job. “Actually it was Chris who helped me. She gave me advice, she came and looked at flats with me. My first flat was amazing. It was huge, like a palace. The lounge was 21 feet long by about 19 feet. The bedroom was almost the same size. The bathroom was a wet room with a shower with one of those really big heads. But I took it for granted and got kicked out.”
“I had a job as a waitress and I had this great flat and, for the first time in years, I felt free. All this stuff that had been on my shoulders was finally lifted off and instead of paying the rent I used all my wages on partying…
“So I ended up back at YES with all my bags and that day Chris stayed late so I could be picked up by my community worker who put me in a bed and breakfast for the night. The next morning I was back at YES and Chris helped me find new accommodation. To me, she is a legend.”
I assume Becky knows that Chris’s job at YES is finishing at the end of this month. She is being made redundant. At the same time as Chrissy is taking voluntary redundancy as a YES employee, Chris is being made redundant by Torbay Council who, for the past eight years has paid her salary as part of their youth service. Chris started out as a volunteer with YES when it was set up back in 1996 and then was paid for a part-time role. Although she will shortly be redundant she’s not thinking of clearing her desk any time soon. She will carry on helping the young people of Brixham as a volunteer, coming round full circle.
I make some comment about Chris’s departure, about it being all part of the cuts, about how shortsighted it is.
As I’m repeating myself, I notice Becky is beginning to cry. “Do you want to take a break?” I suggest, switching off my tape recorder. “You didn’t know that, did you?”
“This is why people are in the situation that they are because so much money is poured into things that we don’t need and nothing into the things that actually matter.” Becky is clutching a tissue now, talking faster and getting more upset. “What they don’t realise is that when they provide things like that – like Chris at YES – it helps change people and then those people put back into that community. It has a positive knock-on effect.”
Becky tells me I can turn my tape recorder on again. She doesn’t mind, she’s got something to say.
“It’s not the way the world should go around in my eyes,” she says, “I may as well say it: when I was younger, I self harmed a lot. It was Chris who made my mind work in the way it was supposed to… she got my head into the right place… she let me talk about things and helped me to understand why I was feeling like that. I wish I could win the lottery… I’d pay her wages.” She is silent for a moment, thinking about what she is going to say next, thinking about whether she wants to say it.
“I can honestly say there have been times I wouldn’t be here now if it hadn’t been for YES… for Chris. Sometimes all it needed was a chat over a brew, but there have been times…”. She starts crying again, “… and she wouldn’t be here either,” pointing through the wall at her daughter asleep in the next room.
“You’re making me well up here,” I say, unable to keep it together. So much for the dispassionate documentarist.
Becky likes saying, ‘my daughter’ and says it with such pride. “My daughter has given me purpose. She’d made me realise what I’m supposed to do… just be her mum. Life’s got meaning now… it’s about love, a love I know I would never have got anywhere else.”
Laura, quiet until now, is joining in. Her daughter is a few months older than Erin-May but she shares the same new mum experience. “You feel a love for your child that is completely differently from any you’ve known before,” she says.
“The moment I gave birth to my daughter,” continues Becky, “every single doubt I had that I might not be doing the right thing just disappeared and I’ve never had a thought like that since. I’m happy now. I’m very happy. I’ve got my daughter, my home, my job. I feel as if I should be giving more, that’s the only thing that makes me unhappy.”
“What do you mean… give more?”
“I could be doing so much more. I know it sounds weird but I’d like to be doing something like that.” She gestures through her window towards The Edge. “Working for YES, or something like YES. I feel I should be giving something back.”
“Back to the community?”
“Yeah, back to everyone.”
“And what about Erin-May? What would you like her life to be like?”
“Nothing like mine! I’d like her to grow up carefree until she is old enough to know what she should be caring about. I want her to have a normal childhood… be a normal teenager. I don’t want her to be like me, but if she was, I’d deal with it. I want her to grow up knowing she can do whatever she wants to do and knowing I will back her one million per cent.”
I shouldn’t be here, listening to this. Someone else should. Decision-makers, politicians, bureaucrats, heads of this or that department… anyone making the call about where the money should be spent. They should be sitting on this sofa (bought, by the way, from a friend for twenty quid), listening to this eloquent young woman who might, had things been different, become a statistic of teenage suicide.
For Becky the staff of this small youth project in a Devon fishing port have given their unqualified support when she has been most vulnerable; they supplied academic tutoring when everyone else had failed; and provided a refuge again and again when there was nowhere else to go. They offered the consistency of having someone there, someone who didn’t judge, who put the kettle on, listened and helped with the practicalities of getting her life back on track.
And for Becky it has worked. This young woman is now a devoted mother, determined to be there for her daughter, whatever life throws at them. Not only is she happy – happier than at any other time in her life – but she is nearly ready to give back. She would make a brilliant counsellor, able to listen to troubled teenagers, to know what helps and more than able to articulate that help.
But, by the time she is ready, there may be fewer places like YES. Fewer projects that could use her experience, her skills, her passion. The decision-makers should be sitting here.
I hadn’t wanted to ask straight away but in the last half an hour Becky has been so open, so eloquent about her life and her emotions, I feel as if I could ask anything. And, if she didn’t want to answer me, she’d let me know.
“What about your daughter’s father? Where is he in all of this?”
Becky’s voice becomes a little less assertive and a little more defensive. “Almost as soon as I was pregnant, I realised it wasn’t a relationship that was going to last. We split up last year, on my birthday, over a cup of tea and a card,” she says, laughing as she recalls the occasion. They’d been together for two years. He’s a fisherman, off to sea for a week, back for three or four days.
“Our splitting was one of the best things that could have happened because my daughter gets so much more out of me… there’s more of me to give.”
“Does he still see her?”
“Yes, sometimes on his days off he’ll take her for a night or two. He takes her to his sister’s.”
“And what about your parents, do you still keep in touch with them?”
“My mum I see, always have. My dad, I don’t speak to, through choice. I’ve spoken to him six times since I was 12. Three of them in prison and three since. I’ve let him meet my daughter because… I don’t even know why… well, when I had her it made me re-evaluate what family was about. Even though I’ve had problems with my dad, he is my daughter’s granddad and I know he’d never bring harm to her. I knew he’d dote over her, so my relationship with him is only for my daughter.”
Erin-May is awake next door and Becky goes to fetch her. Laura has been photographing us chatting all this time and now takes some pictures of the baby with her mum. It’s getting dark outside and I can hear from the click of the shutter that she hasn’t got much light to play with.
Before we leave Becky to feed her daughter I arrange to come back tomorrow afternoon and take some of my own pictures, hopefully with some decent daylight.