FEATURE: Warmth that comes with a little help from their friends
There was something about newspapers two decades ago that made journalist Tony Gearing uncomfortable.
Everywhere he looked he saw teenagers shown as irresponsible, yobbish, or worse.
But he refused to believe the relentlessly negative view, and decided to do something about it.
Today, Tony heads a charity founded to give public-spirited youngsters the credit they deserve.
He sought out young people whose selfless actions were an inspiration, and set up a citizenship competition.
The rules were simple. You had to be aged between 10 and 25, and give to others.
He called it Young People of the Year, soon abbreviated to YOPEY.
Since then it has widened its scope to run befriending schemes that match school students with care home residents.
Teenagers as young as 14 visit their friends, who could have severe dementia, once a week.
It may be impossible to have a conversation. By the next visit that person may have forgotten who they are.
But, says Tony, they will leave their elderly friend with a ‘warm, fuzzy feeling’ – and that is what matters.
In Suffolk, there are YOPEY befrienders in Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury, with plans to expand into other towns.
“It was the way my industry treated young people that created the spark that led to YOPEY,” said Tony, whose career spanned local and national papers.
“In the early 2000s all the publicity was about them wearing hoodies, binge drinking and behaving badly.
“It led a lot of people to fear teenagers. Some adults would cross the road to avoid them.
“I just couldn’t believe there were so many bad young people out there.
“I was in a Round Table, and said to the other members your kids are good, and mine are, but what about the others?”
Overwhelmingly, the response was that fears about teenagers in general were probably justified.
The reaction left Tony shocked and even more desperate to change attitudes ... but how?
Meeting his wife Jo spurred him to turn his hopes into action.
“She told me: ‘The same skills that can be used to condemn young people can be used to praise them.
‘If you want today’s young people to become good citizens you need to find good role models.’
“When I thought of YOPEY, she said: ‘You have to do this, It’s a great idea let me help you deliver it’,” said Tony, 57, who lives in Stradishall.
“So I used my local newspaper experience. I went into youth groups and schools and found young people who were doing all sorts of amazing things.”
“Jo and I founded YOPEY together. Now she’s a trustee and does a lot of voluntary work for the charity.”
And if the going gets difficult she has another role that is equally vital.
“She kicks me up the backside when I get demoralised, because sometimes it can be quite tough,” he says.
“If she sees a good idea she says you should see that through ... she keeps me at the coalface.”
Tony, who has two grown up children Saskia and Callum, and sons Nathaniel, eight, and Noah, six, with Jo, is chief executive of the charity and its only paid employee.
The first YOPEY competition was held in 2005 in Hertfordshire.
It expanded through Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire the following year, and started in Suffolk in 2009.
Entries revealed the huge variety of ways young people were helping others.
Some helped out in special schools or led youth groups. One, aged 21, raised the entire cost of setting up a school in Africa.
At its peak YOPEY also ran competitions in other parts of the UK including Scotland and Yorkshire.
But it relied heavily on sponsorship from police forces.
“When police funding was cut, they cut ours,” said Tony. “It meant the Suffolk scheme had to stop in 2010.
“Then, in 2012, research came out about the lonely elderly that showed a million over-65s didn’t have a decent conversation with anyone from one week to the next.
“And 400,000 of them considered a pet or the TV their best friend, which I thought was tragic.”
His first idea was to recruit sixth formers to befriend pensioners who lived alone.
But a solicitor advised against it because it would put two vulnerable groups together.
So instead he began asking care homes if they would like teenagers to visit their residents. They said yes.
“Then I thought, there is an entirely different dimension here ... dementia. How do you train kids to deal with that?”
He knew some young people would have had painful experiences visiting relatives with dementia, but felt without the close family tie they would find it easier.
Tony and Jo trained to be dementia champions, learning to teach others how to deal with the disease.
Youngsters need to know how to respond if their elderly friend says something that can’t be true, like ‘my mother’s coming in later’.
“We tell them, you must live in the moment. Your friend might not be able to talk, you might even just hold their hand, but they will keep that warm feeling and know they are loved and safe.”
More than 500 young people have passed through the YOPEY befriending scheme since 2013.
Tony is now starting to recruit younger volunteers aged 14 and 15 who face less exam pressure.
Students from County Upper and St Benedict’s in Bury already take part, visiting the town’s St Peter’s House and North Court homes.
“They are learning so many lessons in life,” he said. “At the tough end of the scale they are learning to cope with grief.”
But the resilience shown by befrienders can amaze him. “One 17 year-old carried on sitting with a man who was unconscious, for an hour a day, holding his hand, until he died.
“He said: ‘It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I’m glad I did it’.”
“Some worry about leaving their friend when they go to university, but it doesn’t offset the fact they have enriched their lives. They also learn to be reliable, and think of others.
“The other big thing is today’s teenagers will probably live into their 90s.
“They face a dementia timebomb and many will finish up caring for someone who has the condition.
“Maybe doing this will take some of the fear out of it.”