The table is strewn with packs of Monster Munch and Haribos. The smell of acetone from the nail polish remover burns my nostrils. A gaggle of teenage girls paint their nails, and apply make-up, expertly contouring and checking their handiwork in compact mirrors. There's light-hearted banter and chatter filling the room.
This could be any teenage girl's bedroom in the country. Except it's not.
I feel slightly uncomfortable and intrusive as I'm lurking in the background of the weekly Women's Group that takes place at the New Horizon Centre near Kings Cross, especially when I learn the golden rule: What happens in Women's Group, stays in Women's Group.
Suddenly, the girls decide that they will go around the room, taking it in turns to each pay each other a compliment. They comment on each other's beautiful eyes, their smiles, their open nature. Then they turn to Hazz.
Hazz is the Women's Worker, a full-time employee funded by Comic Relief. It's the first time I realise that she's an employee rather than one of the group. The session is being led not by her, but by two of the young women in the group. They cajole her into saying something nice about each of them, and without missing a beat, Hazz speaks eloquently about positive attributes each young woman has - whether it's incredible artistic talents, a non-judgemental attitude or complete reliability and dedication, it's clear she knows these girls inside out.
I know if I'd heard these affirmations said about me, I'd leave the session feeling a million dollars, but it's only after, after we hear these young people's stories it dawns on me what a lifeline these positive comments can be. For young women who have had their self-confidence and feeling of self-worth systematically sapped from them, this boost is incredibly important.
|Women's Worker Hazz - left|
After the session, we meet Farrah*. She is breathtakingly beautiful, and if life had dealt her a different hand you could easily see her as a famous young British actress treading the boards on the West End. She secured a place at a prestigious youth theatre group but unfortunately her alcoholism put an end to that.
She started drinking as a young teenage girl, like many of her peers. However, coming from a devoutly religious family, this was not accepted and she was soon ostracised. The drinking spiralled and she'd often go missing for days on end. Her increased drinking lead her to mix with the wrong crowd, and she found herself in dangerous situations.
And then one day she was raped.
Her bravery talking about this was incredible. Clearly still raw she didn't go into details, except to say that it never resulted in a criminal prosecution for the perpetrator. The case was dropped. It is agonisingly difficult to comprehend this injustice and the lack of closure this has given her. The distrust of the law and the feelings of self-doubt.
At her lowest ebb, she found New Horizons and with the support of staff like Hazz, she is putting her life back together. A young girl, only a few years older than my daughter, let down by every establishment that should have been there to help her - her family, school, social services, the police...
The experiences this young woman has had in her short life are heartbreaking - death threats from her family, hospitalisation from suicide attempts, a brutal sexual assault and homelessness. If it hadn't been for New Horizons, she genuinely doesn't know where she'd be right now.
But with help to get away from the environment she'd found herself in, support to find accommodation, counselling to deal with her mental trauma, and the re-building of her self esteem, she's now completing a course to start her own business as a make-up artist and has been sober for over a month. Her eyes shine bright with determination, and you can tell, she's turned a corner.
|Senior Youth Worker, Steven offers a friendly and non-judgemental welcome to all new visitors|
Then we meet Polly* and Lucy*. What's clear, is that each young women has their own story, but also just how easily it could happen to anyone. Without the support of a loving family, these incidents can be the catalyst for a life to quickly spiral out of control. Lucy tells that she "owes more to the workers at New Horizon that she does to her own mother".
Lucy is a strong-willed and incredibly likeable person. She's feisty and passionate and you can see how, when not channelled positively it led her to scrapes with the police. She feels sure that if it weren't for Hazz, she'd be on the streets doing drugs right now. Instead, with the right guidance and nurturing, she's now leading some sessions at Women's Group and is passionately standing up for women's rights. She talks about how young girls are so often bombarded with cat-calls and derogatory comments in the street or in a bar, but that behaviour is not tolerated here. All the visitors to the centre must treat each other with respect, and not only does this help the female visitors feel comfortable and safe, but it shows the young men that this behaviour is wrong and that women must be treated equally. She's a feisty feminist ready to take on the injustices of the world.
Hazz has been working at the centre for 6 years. Her three-year full-time contract is funded by Comic Relief. She's modest when it comes to the success she's had here and the incredible impact she has made on people's lives. Without any judgement at all, she's always ready to listen and is one of those people who just always seems to know exactly the right thing to say.
|The wide range of activities and life skills workshops on offer|
The holistic approach taken by the staff compliments the practical help offered at the centre. From housing benefit advice to serving hot meals and offering a laundry service, this is a lifeline to many. Without your generous support of Comic Relief's fundraising, these kind of places couldn't exist, and the final safety net for vulnerable young people might disappear.
* Names changed
Special thanks to Ali for organising the visit, to all the staff at New Horizons and the inspiring young women who allowed us into their sanctuary. Check out the other posts from Chocolate is not the only fruit, Being Mrs C, Mad Mum of 7 and Missy B and Family. If you'd like to donate to this year's joint blogger effort of Team Honk for Comic Relief, please do so here.