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‘You see them turn up on the Monday like a rabbit in the headlights, and then they get on with the exercises and they’re absolutely buzzing for it’.
The Lifemaps project started as an idea to tackle crime amongst youngsters across Staffordshire. It has now grown into an award-winning programme which schools are queuing up to take part in.
And with knife-crime still an issue across the county it is as relevant as ever, with this week’s #DitchTheBlade campaign the perfect time for its organisers to put the disappointment of losing this year’s courses to the coronavirus pandemic behind them and focus on once again helping youngsters at risk of offending in 2021.
In 2013, PC Sarah Griffiths – one of Staffordshire Police’s Youth Violence Officers – got together with Ray Miller, the Army’s Engagement Warrant Officer with 11 Signals and the West Midlands Brigade.
They had previously come into contact through the Prince’s Trust-backed Burslem Project in Stoke, and were tasked with coming up with a new concept that would go further than just arresting young people on the streets, intercepting them before that point and showing them there was another way for their lives to go.
“We started with schools, looking into communities and trying to build bridges with them,” Says PC Griffiths, who joined Staffordshire Police in 2000 and previously served in neighbourhood policing.
“We wanted to build up people’s trust in services and tackle the rise in knife crime and anti-social behaviour.
“We wanted to show there was something happening in these young people’s lives and they can do something positive to resolve problems. We wanted to show that policing is not just about making arrests and putting people in prison.”
WO2 Miller, who has served in the military for 30 years, says the course was designed to meet the needs of both the Army and the police.
“What did the Army offer, and what did the police need?” Mr Miller adds. “There was a select group of people the police wanted to help at the time, and we put the course together to do that.
“It aims to develop young people. Who are their positive and negative role models? It then uses the Army’s core values to tackle this – discipline, courage, self-worth etc.”
The concept was pretty simple. Using the Army’s Swynnerton Training Camp, near to Yarnfield, Lifemaps hosts two five-day residential courses a year in April and October. They craft a bespoke program based on who that course’s intake of roughly 36 Year 10 students are after receiving recommendations from schools and community-based services across the county.
It takes place during term-time with schools seeing it as beneficial so allowing their pupils to leave the classroom behind and pick up the new skills.
“We get them to try new things,” Mr Miller adds. “It’s physically and mentally demanding. There’s room inspections at 6am. There’s physical drills. At one point we get them to stay in the woods for 24 hours. They all say ‘I’m not sleeping outside’, but then they really get into it.”
“They come from varied backgrounds,” adds PC Griffiths. “Some are excelling at school, but some might be struggling socially or behaviourally.
“We ask schools to decide who deserves this chance. Who is doing well at school, but who is doing badly? Some might be rewarded for excelling in class but others might not do so well in school but might excel on the Lifemaps course.
“It teaches leadership skills, physical and mental fitness. It also gets those students who are struggling mixing with those who are doing well in class and it might be the first time that has happened for them.
“Has there been an increase in violent crime recently? We speak to the Army to get the relevant speakers in for that course. People who can tell the youngsters ‘this happened to me’ and discuss it with them.
“Some kids have different skillsets to those needed in schools so we take them out of their comfort zones to try new things and discover what they are.”
The project has gone from strength to strength and been recognised as a result – robustly backed by the county’s Commissioner for Police, Fire & Rescue and Crime Matthew Ellis. It has seen Staffordshire Police rewarded for their problem solving initiative, while PC Griffiths was handed a ‘local hero award’ by the Stoke Sentinel for her work to help the region’s youngsters.
It has now been rolled out across the country too, with the Metropolitan Police in London taking it and adapting it to their force areas in particular.
And all she’d hoped for at the beginning was for the force to be seen as ‘human’ and ‘normal’, and not just a uniform of which to be scared.
“There’s always breakdowns on the Monday and Tuesday,” she adds. “There’s no phone signal, there’s no access to smoking, booze, or drugs if these youngsters are taking them. But by the end of the week they can achieve five days without any of these things. And then when we get back home we can push them to relevant services and show they’ve already achieved five days without them.”
There’s a sobering aspect to the course, too, according to Mr Miller. Every April and October the latest cohort will be taken to the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas to learn the stories of those of a similar age to them who have served their country and learn of other paths their lives can take away from crime.
“We always take them to the Arboretum,” adds PC Griffiths. “They can look at the history, some of them have family members with names inscribed on the monuments. It’s a real turning point for some, a real-life impact talking to real soldiers and seeing some from a similar background to them making a career for themselves.”
And then it’s time to celebrate. At the end of each week-long course the youngsters get their own passing out ceremony to mark their achievements and show people both at home and in school what they can do. There’s trophies up for grabs for the best motivated and those who have shown the best leadership qualities, and presentations held to celebrate the success stories of the week.
“You see them develop from a shy and nervous teenager to the final drill and passing out parade in front of their parents and teachers, which is brilliant,” adds Mr Miller. “You can see their pride in what they have achieved.”
“I’ll always remember one course where we had one teenage boy who had picked up a trophy and he was afraid to take it home,” adds PC Griffiths. “He said to me ‘I’ve never won anything before, if I take this home my family will think I’ve stolen it’. I was just left thinking, ‘is this where we’ve come to now?’ It’s why we need to help these children.”
Sadly the Covid-19 pandemic has put paid to both the 2020 courses, but pandemic-permitting it is hoped they will be able to run in 2021 and ready to take on their next cohort of 36 for April.
Mr Miller continues: “It gives me a huge sense of achievement too. It makes me incredibly proud of the young people. We start them on this trajectory and then Sarah takes them on and helps them develop them and keep them on the straight and narrow afterwards.
“It helps the police in helping young people to stay away from lives of crime and protects them from the risks that brings.”
And PC Griffiths adds: “We don’t just drop the kids afterwards. They’ve picked up skills. Their schools can add things to their curriculum to support them and we can divert them to outside agencies to further help them.
“They can turn around and say ‘this is what we achieved’ on the course, and that is so important for them.”
• If you are concerned about a young person and need help and support, you can visit our dedicated webpage for more information on where to turn at www.staffordshire.police.uk/ditchtheblade