Residential Youth Work – 125 years ago and now!

Residential Youth Work – 125 years ago and now!

Have you heard of the ‘Fresh Air Fortnight’?  Recently, our business manager has been going through the old archives of the organisations that formed the Glasgow United Evangelistic Association (GUEA), of which the BTI (Bible Training Institute), which after various iterations became SSCM, was one.

BTI was launched in 1892, and was “not intended to compete with the various theological halls where students are trained for the ministry, but for the practical instruction of Christian workers, both men and women, so as to qualify them for efficient service in the home or foreign field.”  The formation of BTI followed as a natural progression from the children’s and youth work that had been carried out for the preceding two decades.  This included ‘The Children’s Sabbath Dinner’ which commenced in 1874 and the ‘Glasgow Poor Children’s Fresh Air Fortnight’ started in 1884.

Fresh Air Fortnight

The Fresh Air Fortnight was established in 1884, during Queen Victoria’s reign, only 4 years after school attendance for 5-10 year olds was made compulsory.  In an age when almost all the homes in Glasgow were lit by candles, oil or gas and all heating was produced by burning fossil fuels in an open fire, the pollution levels were high.  It is no wonder then that in the 1890 funding appeal the GUEA wrote: “Those of you who live in Glasgow, live in comfortable homes, in healthy parts of the city, or in its suburbs; and yet it is necessary for your health that you go for a month or two in summer to the coast or country.  If you require this change, how much more do those poor children – living, many of them, in unhealthy localities and in hovels not worthy of the name of home – need, at least, a fortnight where they can be out of sight of Glasgow’s smoke and breathe the pure air of the country”.

In 1889, 3,531 children travelled to country villages (many of which have radically urbanised since then) such as Chryston, East Kilbride, Garelochead and Houston for at least a fortnight.  This investment of £2,073 (approximately £250,000 in today’s terms, never mind the bundles of clothing, hats and boots) was viewed as an act of social justice, not merely a holiday for free.  Even then, they realised that the Victorian urban smog was a factor in early deaths and therefore giving the children access to fresh air had health benefits that could potentially lengthen their lives.

Without access to fresh air, the children, over 600 or which living in single parent families or kinship carers, were being condemned to an early death.  Those involved in donating, volunteering or hosting the children were doing so either out of a sense of justice or as a response to their Christian beliefs.   They believed that these ‘poor children’ did not deserve to be condemned to early death sentence and therefore this was a very practical response to Jesus’ command to love one another, and by the time of the First World War had become so established that they owned 12 properties for the purpose.

Residentials today

Over 125 years later, the context is quite different.  Pollution may still exist in Glasgow, but this is vastly reduced in comparison to the 1880s.  The average family does not tend to go on a holiday from Glasgow to East Kilbride, but rather those families who can afford it will travel abroad to Western Europe or beyond.  Likewise, charities such as ‘Cash for Kids’ have replaced the ‘Fresh Air Fortnight’ as being the local charity of choice in the local media.

Despite this there are still Christian agencies providing residential experiences for young people.  Changes in legislation, in attitudes towards residential experiences and to the welfare system mean that there is not a need for the ‘Fresh Air Fortnight’ as it was originally conceived, But the original rationale is still there.

I will offer a snapshot of three local organisations that provide residential experiences for young people that otherwise would not be able to afford it: Junction 12, local YMCAs and theGKExperience.

Junction 12 is a charity based in the east end of Glasgow that works with young people who live in areas of social deprivation.  It “aims to establish and develop caring, nurturing relationships with 10-18 year olds in the east end of Glasgow and to enable them to make positive and healthy choices in every area of their lives” (www.junction12.org.uk).  In order to do this, a key feature of their work is to arrange residential experiences for the young people.  These include Easter camps, summer holidays and weekend camps, all of which are run in connection with SU Scotland.  These residential experiences provide the fresh air experience, however they do much more through providing activities and games where they learn social skills in a fun way as well as having the chance to hear the Christian message.

Charities such as Junction 12 work in similar areas of deprivation as the Fresh Air Fortnight and take young people to similar areas of the countryside not far from Glasgow.  The style of residential more closely resembles that of the 1910s rather than 1880s, as they tend to go away to centres rather than family homes and have a very structured timetable.  Likewise the inclusion of a specific Christian message would also more closely like that of the 1910s.

Whilst local YMCAs work with young people from a similar background, they are more likely to provide overseas residential experiences. These allow young people to explore the world and broaden their thinking about how things are done in other places.  In order to prove their validity to those who may doubt their worth, these residentials tend to be themed focussing on areas like leadership skills or being an effective board member.

This approach to residentials is similar to the Fresh Air Fortnight only in that it provide a residential experience that is on par with those from a middle-class background.  Saying that, the emphasis on the empowerment of young people and their ability to equip with skills that could be transformative for later life, are elements that were lacking in the approach 125 years ago.

Working with young people over a sustained period of time in their local settings and then allowing the outdoor residential and wilderness experience to help them to thrive, is the model which underpins the work of theGKexperience.  The young people come from areas such as Ruchazie, Blackhill and Milton in Glasgow which again would be classed as areas of multiple deprivation.  Young people love the outdoor experience even if it is a bit scary – it helps them to bond, to trust and to thrive. As young people share their experiences, they do not just try out new things but also experience community in a more profound way.  TheGKexperience approach provides a similar wilderness experience as those of the Fresh Air Fortnight and having that community experience is one that would resemble the homely feel of the family home.

Whilst I have tried to emphasise some of the potential differences of these three organisations, it should be noted that some of these are slightly artificial.  Whilst each model is different, each has its merits and their value can be seen in the lives of the young people who return enthused, invigorated and energised.

Graeme McMeekin
Vice-Principal

SOCIAL JUSTICE YOUTH AND COMMUNITY