NEWSMAKER: Volunteering can be cool - James Edleston, Youth project manager, TimeBank

ANNIE KELLY

James Edleston has been volunteering since the age of 13 and says it was "never an issue, it was always just something I wanted to do.

It is this attitude that has helped him launch TimeBank's pilot youth volunteering scheme, which encourages young people across the country to create and manage active community and voluntary projects.

"My interests have always been in young people, education and personal development and the TimeBank project is all of this and more,

he says.

"There's a real buzz in creating something that will produce some really inspiring work."

The idea behind the new project has been floating around the organisation for some time, but it took Edleston to take the reins and bash the concept into a workable formula. The basic objective behind the programme is to break down the barriers that exist between young people and volunteering and get people to do something active that will make a difference to the community they live in.

"A lot of the current obstacles that are stopping more young people from volunteering are institutional, such as age limits or time constraints, but there are a lot of social and mental blockades to get through as well,

he says. "A lot of people still believe that volunteering means weeding the local cemetery or things that have no real relevance to their lives and interests and we wanted to change this."

Edleston looked at different models of similar projects across the country and worked with various youth agencies such as Millennium Volunteers and the Youth Action Network to develop the scheme. His aim was to use this expertise to build something that could be modified and replicated in schools, youth centres and sixth-form colleges across the UK.

"The most important thing for me is to ensure that we're empowering young people and allowing them to make changes to things that mean something to them,

he says. "It's all about challenging the perception that young people don't know what's best for them."

The scheme is built around a piece of software that can be accessed through a web site or via a CD-Rom. The programme enables the user to stipulate areas of interest, such as sports or the environment, and then guides them through the process of setting up a club or group that will work towards specific aims in their local community.

"The idea is that there are no limits,

he explains. "If you want to set up a music project or pilot a conservation scheme then we can make it happen."

It is also designed to be tailored to each individual school or area, so that young people can find out about volunteering opportunities in their local area and focus their search according to how much time they want to give and what skills they are able to contribute.

Edleston says that one of the major advantages of the programme is TimeBank's ability to provide viable avenues of funding that will ensure that the projects actually happen.

"Basically we're telling young people that the money is here, and all they have to do is have the idea and go for it,

he says.

It's also been developed independently from the national curriculum so that young people will have the space to develop their own ideas away from the classroom. Edleston also believes that by recruiting young people to run each project, more will be encouraged to think of the scheme as their own.

"There will be no 'official' face to this scheme,

he says. "We've designed it to give young people full control. That means they will dictate everything from how the programme will look, to how it will be marketed, to what teachers are involved."

Drawing on his own experience of volunteering, he says that it was vital to hand over responsibility and let participants have full control over their projects.

"There's nothing worse than telling someone they have responsibility or full control over something when they don't,

he explains. "Nobody is going to tell them how to run the show, and they're all working to their own individual goals"

After working with participants on pilot programmes of the scheme across London, he firmly believes that it is young people and their ideas that can contribute most to the development of volunteering in the UK, and says that agencies and charities should make sure they are listening.

"At the moment the opportunities don't exist for young people to find volunteering opportunities that really excite or inspire them,

he says.

"One of the aims of this programme is to foster closer links between youth communities and volunteer bureaux so the sector can feed and grow off their ideas.

"The youth voluntary sector can learn a lot from looking at what young people are creating through initiatives such as this,

he continues. "I think we're so entrenched within traditional structures of volunteering that we forget to look at what motivates and inspires people."

He admits that the most difficult aspect of the project will be popularising the concept of volunteering and persuading people to give up their time.

"Hopefully by this time next year we'll be able to see where we're going wrong and what can change,

he said. "But if we get people to break the mould then we're halfway to creating something that can inspire a new generation of volunteers."

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