A group of young people, who have turned their lives around after struggling at school, have been honoured by HRH The Prince of Wales at a prestigious national awards ceremony – The Prince’s Trust and L’Oréal Paris Celebrate Success Awards – at London’s Leicester Square Odeon.
The Awards recognise young people who have overcome significant challenges, from drug addiction and depression to long-term unemployment or homelessness, with help from The Trust.
Graeme Croton and Kevin Lawrence are just two of the young people who were up for the national awards. Kevin struggled with mental and physical disabilities before setting up his own gardening business. Graeme has Asperger’s syndrome and has established an information service for other young people with the condition.
Also honoured at the ceremony were young people with learning difficulties from Crown Woods School in Greenwich who undertook a community project to raise awareness of gun and knife crime.
Twenty-five-year-old Graeme Croton was one of only three young people from across the UK nominated for the Balfour Beatty Community Impact Award. He was crowned winner for setting up Project Aspie which supports young people living with Asperger’s syndrome. Graeme’s Asperger’s was only diagnosed in the last two years and this led to his setting up the community project with The Trust.
As a result of his condition, Graeme was singled out by his peers at school for being different. He found the abuse so severe that he could not see a future for himself and he gave up trying to make friends, retiring to his bedroom and hiding his pain by taking it out on his family. “I really struggled as a teenager and became so introverted”, says Graeme. “I felt really different from other people – it was so lonely.”
Eventually, he visited his doctor and was ultimately diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Graeme felt hugely relieved to have an answer to why he felt so different to other people and he began to research the condition. “Although it was a shock to discover I had Asperger’s, I felt a huge weight being lifted off my shoulders”, he says. “I finally began to accept myself for who I was and as a result I began to feel much happier.”
Graeme realised that there were many people who were uncertain about the condition. The diagnosis gave him an idea to create an outreach programme aimed at supporting and educating those affected by Asperger’s syndrome.
With no idea of where to start or how to get there, he approached The Prince’s Trust for support. With regular guidance and advice, Project Aspie was born and it has proved to be a positive influence for young people with Asperger’s and their families and friends; it has helped them understand the condition through seminars, group meetings and social events.
Graeme showed great skill in generating support for his project. He contacted his local press and proved that he possessed great communication skills when 50 people turned up to the launch of the Project. Since then, Graeme’s project has received further development funding from UN Ltd. He is dedicated to spreading awareness of Asperger’s syndrome and regularly volunteers to speak at job centres and NHS Trusts about the condition.
Graeme feels that the whole experience has turned his life around and enabled him to provide vital help and opportunities to others. “I feel privileged to be in a position where I am helping other Asperger’s sufferers”, he says.
Before joining The Prince’s Trust xl club at Crown Woods College, each one of a group of students at the College had experienced low self-esteem due to personal barriers, ranging from ADHD and autism to literacy difficulties, that prevented them from engaging at school.
All 11 students were referred to The Prince’s Trust’s course in the hope that the opportunities provided by the charity would improve their confidence and motivation to succeed at school. As part of the programme, the young people attended a session on knife and gun crime and were inspired to organise a community campaign to raise awareness of anti-social behaviour.
In order to fund the project, the young people worked as a team to communicate their ideas to secure a Community Cash Award, which enabled them to create marketing materials and organise assemblies at their college.
Although many of the group initially lacked important skills, such as problem solving, presenting and time management, they gradually developed them as they liaised with community police officers and raised awareness through talks and performances to young people. As part of the campaign, the youngsters tried to raise awareness of the wider issues of resisting peer pressure and not getting involved in anti-social behaviour. They scripted their own play about the subject, which they performed to young people and parents in local schools.
The campaign has had a significant impact on the community and the group is currently making a DVD following the progress of their project. The research and delivery of the young people’s work has resonated with many important organisations and they have successfully forged links with the Royal Borough of Greenwich Council and the University of Greenwich to take their message to a wider audience. Greenwich Councillor Jackie Smith said that: "These pupils from Crown Woods College have shown that young people in Greenwich can and do make a positive difference to our community."
The group made it through to the final three for the Balfour Beatty Community Impact Award and the company’s CEO (Construction Services UK), Mike Peasland, warmly praised their efforts. “Not only have these young people improved their own prospects, but they have worked hard to improve the wider community in which they live”, he said.
Twenty-nine-year-old Kevin Lawrence struggled with physical and mental disabilities before turning a passion for gardening into a successful business.
From an early age, Kevin had speech and language difficulties and struggled to keep up in school. He found reading and writing a challenge and was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia, which led to behavioural problems in school. He was also diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. His conditions made him a vulnerable target for bullying and he was at risk of giving up on his ambitions.
Despite Kevin’s difficulties he persevered with his education and went to college to gain Level 1 literacy and numeracy and an NVQ1 in horticulture. Although he had faced barriers to learning, Kevin was determined to succeed. During his time at college, he also worked in a part time job. However, he was harassed in his workplace and this was yet another blow to his self-esteem. He became depressed, and isolated himself from other people.
Kevin turned to gardening, which remained a passion of his, and volunteered to maintain the gardens around his church. Kevin’s skills were recognised by local parishioners and he soon began to think of his passion as a potential career opportunity.
Kevin always had the support of his parents, but he was keen to become independent. The Job Centre pointed Kevin in the direction of The Prince’s Trust and he signed up for the Enterprise Programme which helps unemployed young people to start up in business.
As part of the course, Kevin was given a £500 loan which enabled him to buy the equipment he needed to start his company – Kevin Lawrence Garden Services. Kevin also credits his business mentor, Hugh Stirk, as an invaluable teacher who provided him with the skills to turn his passion into a successful business.
Although Kevin enjoyed the practical side of gardening, his dyslexia made it more difficult for him to deal with the paperwork involved in running a business. “I struggled a bit with writing a business plan and managing the finance side of things”, says Kevin. However, with support he got there in the end. “Most of the time now, I can manage invoices on my laptop without having to ask for help”, he says.
To date, Kevin has 55 loyal customers and maintains the grounds of two churches. He provides a valuable service to his community and has achieved the independence that he has always strived for. “Having dyslexia and ADHD has made it more difficult for me to succeed, but I’m glad I never gave up”, he says. “I would advise any young person with special educational needs to have patience and get the support you need. If there’s something you want to do, stick at it and you will get there eventually.”
Kevin has come a long way with his business and the right support has been crucial to his success. “I am proud of my business and I am confident that it will continue,” he concludes.
Kevin was the 2012 winner of the RBS Enterprise Award.
Ginny Lunn is Director of Policy and Strategy at The Prince's Trust: