Opening the famous red gates for a brighter future

We hit ‘The Long and Winding Road’ to Liverpool recently to see how the Salvation Army’s dream of providing a state-of-the-art training centre for young people with learning disabilities and a new Beatles Visitor Centre is coming to life.

Allchurches Trust’s Paul Playford and Emma Smith met the team behind the vision for Strawberry Field and toured the construction site, which was once the site of the children’s home where John Lennon spent many happy days with his childhood friends.

More than 60,000 visitors already visit the famous red gates immortalised in the Beatles song every year, and the new visitor attraction featuring a new multi-media exhibition on the place, the song and John Lennon’s early life will only boost the site’s popularity. It is due to open in late summer 2019.

Among those ready to welcome visitors will be young people with learning disabilities who are being given the skills and confidence to enter the world of work through the Steps to Work programme.

The redeveloped site – with the help of a £115,000 Allchurches Trust grant – will become the training and placement hub for these trainees. It will also provide opportunities for them to work across a range of on-site facilities, including the visitor attraction itself, a café, a shop and landscaped gardens.

When Paul and Emma visited the site with the Salvation Army’s Senior Trusts Fundraiser, Alex Cairns, they were given an update about how the first cohort of trainees – on a pilot version of the programme before Strawberry Field opens – are making their way in the world. Another two cohorts will start during 2019.

Most of the young people are referred by the City of Liverpool College – one of the Salvation Army’s project partners – where they attend for two or three days a week. After completing a transition course focused on learning life skills, such as travel training and money handling, they are supported to find a placement that meets their interests and their needs.

Trainees usually complete three or four placements over a 12 to 18 month period and are supported throughout by a work coach, who then continues to support them as they look for employment and start work, having completed their college qualification.

“Many of our trainees have got really big personalities but lack confidence when faced with unfamiliar situations away from their families and friends,” said Lauren Lewis, the Steps to Work Programme Manager.

“It has been wonderful to watch them build their skills and self-esteem, grow in independence and really start to shine on their placements. The great news is that there is a real sense of excitement from local employers about the project, and we certainly see it as a good news story if the trainees leave the programme because they have got a job!”

The current trainees include Rumbi, who is working in a nursery and has recently enjoyed taking responsibility for the reading corner. With the support of a co-worker, she is also co-ordinating break times for the children, learning key teamworking skills and gaining more responsibility as her confidence develops.

Victoria has also thrived on her placement at a primary school and is enrolled on a teaching assistant (TA) course at college along with fellow trainee, Nicole, who has been on placement with the Salvation Army Corps.

Abbie is also excelling on her work placement at the café at the Beatles’ Fab Four Story. Now a trained barista, she is enrolling on a Level 2 Hospitality course, focusing on front of house.

Another keen performer among the cohort, Christopher, is living his dream by working at the Unity Theatre. He acts as an usher, takes tickets and works in the bar and restaurant and is also undertaking a Level 2 course in Hospitality.

Originally keen to explore a career route into IT, Kieran – who was one of the choir that went to the world-famous Abbey Road studios to create a special version of the ‘Strawberry Field’ song to celebrate the project – changed his mind and decided that he wants to work with vulnerable people. He is working at a care home where he runs exercise classes and supports the residents with a range of activities.

Having originally worked towards a City & Guilds qualification on placement at a bike recycling project, army cadet, Anthony, is now looking into a career in the forces, while Michael has enrolled on a Level 2 catering course and is enjoying a placement with Food for Thought, who cater for more than 50 schools in Liverpool.

Employment and Engagement Co-ordinator, Andie Sims, added: “We’re learning from this pilot as much as the young people and employers are, particularly regarding the support we offer to the families of the trainees. It is vital to have a holistic, person-centred approach.

“That’s what’s so unique about the Strawberry Field project; that wrap-around approach. The parents of the trainees have set up their own peer support group and we’re hoping that some of the current cohort will become mentors for new trainees in future.”

Major Kathy Versfeld, the Salvation Army’s Mission Director for Strawberry Field, said: “We’re so excited to be opening the gates to the world and making Strawberry Field a place of welcome; of fun, friendship and refuge.

“We’re hoping that local people will particularly enjoy the opportunities for reflection and spiritual exploration, enjoying the gardens and walking our very own long and winding road, as well as interacting with our trainees in the café and around the site.

“We’re pioneering a completely new business model here and community engagement has been, and will continue to be, key to breaking down barriers and ensuring the project is a success.”

You can find out more about the Strawberry Field project on the dedicated website.

Strawberry-Field-Feb-2019-6.jpg#asset:921