The Challenge II

I love The Challenge! They have given us energetic 16 year olds for two whole days and they have given us money. What more could a community project ask for?

If you haven't come across The Challenge, it's a government sponsored initiative which brokers a relationship between 16 year olds and community groups, fostering a sense of citizenship for them and bringing community groups huge benefits. The children also get to do professional training, fundraising and outdoor team-building activities. I am always filled with envy when they mention in the casual way only 16 year olds can, that they've just come back from a week of caving / canoeing / rock climbing etc. The Challenge runs a rolling programme of students mainly over the summer months and I believe the number of students participating has increased dramatically this year. There are up to 12 students in each group.

Last year we had two groups: one to help with our Well Oiled festival and one to help at Transition Finsbury Park's plant nursery and learning centre, Edible Landscapes London (ELL). I wrote about it here. This year they worked alongside volunteers at Edible Landscapes London for a whole weekend in September. We had one group of 12 on Saturday and a different one on Sunday. Both worked on stool sculpting, green woodworking, hedge trimming, potting up seedlings and large structure building – creating a new rainwater harvesting shelter.

This last project, the rainwater harvester, has been talked about for over a year, going through several iterations before our volunteer, Richard, hit on a simple and effective design. This was to rest a pole between trees, suspend a sheet from it and then stake the sheet at the bottom, with chunky poles. The main, horizontal, pole was a tree trunk taken from the site and the fixings were mostly bike inner tubes from a local bike shop. Volunteer, Jane, who had been mulling over the various design options from the start said, “What's interesting about The Challenge is that they motivate us. They provide reason, labour and a desire to see an end result. Thank goodness, at last we've now done it!”

Frankie, Patrick, Rachael, Hannah and Richard supervised the children while they used hand tools to strip, carve and join wood. There were also adults from The Challenge keeping a close watch and joining in. We built several three legged stools over the weekend, carefully rounding off the seats. Richard found it rewarding: “it was good to see young people pushed to the edge of their boundaries and then produce something they didn't think they could do.” Everyone noticed that there was no gender division between the kinds of tasks the children opted to take part in. They were equally at home experimenting with hand tools on the stool sculpting as using a pair of shears on the hedge.

I worked with the hedge-trimming group – a mammoth job involving clipping the vertical sides of the hedges and raking the clippings into piles – and there was no complaining or holding back. One student was allowed to use a power-trimmer because, coincidentally, he was already a known and trusted acquaintance of Richard via his allotment. I loitered nearby while he worked, but ended up concluding that though a lot noisier, the trimmer was no more dangerous than any of the other hand tools being used.

One important feature of working with The Challenge is that you get to spend time with teenagers. Unless you are a teacher or a parent of a teenager, there are very few social situations where you might get to hang out with them. And they get such bad press – apparently they're always knifing each other, running away, getting pregnant or addicted to alcohol and drugs. In addition, we old fogeys have terrible memories for what it was actually like when we were that age and can barely distinguish between a 15 year old and a 25 year old. This can lead to all sorts of projected assumptions about what 'young people' are like which can only be broken down by spending time in their company. Of course, like any other potentially marginalised group, they are not homogeneous in their outlook/behaviour etc. But they were all interesting and lovely.

Patrick, who is in his 50s, said he felt “less cut off from young people” after the weekend. He enjoyed, “socialising with them. It was good to tell them about yourself without trying to compete with them.” I enjoyed eavesdropping on their conversations (hugely insightful!) and having a few intense exchanges about careers, schools and parenting. I had lots to ask them about secondary schools and they quelled some my fears about what it will be like for my nine year old son when he goes up.

Finally, there was a real sense of achievement from what we'd done. You can see it on people's faces here. This is group two, late Sunday afternoon, after we'd finally got the rainwater harvester up, the woodchips down and the stools built. Richard and Jane are sitting at the front.

After lots of high fives and cheery farewells the Challenge students left and we sat under the new structure, honouring our tiredness and reflecting on the weekend. We all felt, “pleased to have completed this,” said Hannah – and not just the physical legacy. We also felt proud that we'd collaborated so well with each other, sharing leadership roles so that no one felt over-burdened. I had liaised with The Challenge to set up the day, Jane and Richard had taken responsibility for planning and resourcing the sessions and Jane had led the Saturday group, from the starting introductions to the closing circle. It made us feel more confident collectively. We already have an eye on next year, what projects can we take on? Roll on summer 2013 and long live The Challenge!