Michael Alexander speaks to some of the volunteer youth workers giving up their time to help youngsters in Tayside and Fife communities and hears about some of the challenges to face following recent adverse publicity.
The sound of boisterous laughter echoes around the drill hall as a group of boys take on the fun yet educational challenge of trying to build mathematical structures using marshmallows and spaghetti.
It’s a change of pace from the drill practice, chanter lessons, outdoor activities and Bible classes that the boys – and the generations before them over the last 100-plus years – have experienced as members of the 1st St Andrews Boys Brigade.
For the captain of the St Andrews BB company Stephen Donaldson, and the other volunteers who generously devote so much of their spare time to making these activities possible, it’s incredibly rewarding to help the youngsters develop skills, build confidence and take responsibility – all in keeping with the original ethos of the Boys’ Brigade that by combining discipline and reverence, boys will develop “true Christian manliness”.
Yet according to Mr Donaldson, 60, a lifelong member who works as a mechanic at a local garage, the organisation locally now faces a crisis with the current 21 boys the lowest in the company’s history, and an on-going struggle to recruit adult volunteers.
Many of the challenges, he says, apply across the country. They include competition from other structured youth activities; tighter – yet vital – background checks putting off some parents from helping out and a more secular society lessening the appeal of a youth organisation that holds Christian values at its heart.
But Mr Donaldson says there are specific pressures in St Andrews that also put the long term future of the local company in doubt. The main issue there, he says, is a relative lack of affordable housing which has pushed out many low to average income families who would have once been the life-blood of the organisation.
“I do worry for the future of this company,” says Mr Donaldson, a born and bred St Andrean whose wife Irene also helps out, and who is a passionate upholder of the history surrounding the unique category-B listed St Andrews BB Hall, built by public subscription in 1899.
“However, I still believe that we offer so much for the youngsters who do attend and I think in this day and age what we offer is more relevant than ever.”
With the BB engaging 17,000 children and young people and with 3500 adult volunteers in 400 communities across every local authority area in Scotland, John Sharp, director of The Boys’ Brigade in Scotland, says the role of the BB, currently celebrating the 100th anniversary of its Junior Section, is “as important now as it has ever been.”
“It is vital that The Boys’ Brigade ensures that it continues to meet the needs of children and young people,” says Mr Sharp.
“Our focus is ensuring that there is a wide, but also a balanced range of programmes and activities, which include exploring digital skills, learning about health and wellbeing, physical activity and much more.
“We want to make sure that young people can have fun, whilst also learning and developing new skills.”
Kirkcaldy SNP MSP David Torrance, 56, says the key to a successful youth organisation is providing activities that young people enjoy, that are relevant to life and that engage with the community.
Born and bred in Kirkcaldy, the former engineer and Fife councillor, who has represented his home town at Holyrood since 2011, has been attached to the 5th Fife Scout Group in Kirkcaldy for 48 years, first as a cub, scout and venture scout and latterly as a volunteer scout leader.
Encouraged to join by his father, the organisation gave him opportunities like skiing, canoeing and camping as well as responsibilities transferable to wider life that he says were nigh impossible for most children growing up in Kirkcaldy in his youth – and the “real life” opportunities still apply today.
He says: “Scouts went through a bit of an image problem in the 1970s but today we have Bear Grylls as chief scout which helps – such a great figurehead to have.”
Mr Torrance said scouting is in its 11th year of growth with around 80 boys and girls in the 5th Fife Scout Group alone – a catchment that includes some of the poorest parts of Kirkcaldy. One of the attractions, he says, is that it remains relatively cheap.
“Kirkcaldy district has 11 scout groups – we are all surviving and doing really well,” he says, adding that the Scout Association was “years ahead” with its child protection regulations and anti-bullying initiatives.
“If you are joining you get these amazing opportunities. They develop your skills, you develop your communications and you get real life changing opportunities within the scout association.
“It also brings great things for volunteers. If someone is volunteering within the scouts section and turning up every week and giving their time, to their employer that shows commitment. “
By day, Newtyle woman Christine Milne is general manager at the West Park Conference Centre in Dundee.
However, by night and at weekends she is Flight Lieutenant Christine Milne RAFVR(T), Commanding Officer of 1232 (City of Dundee) Squadron of the Air Cadets.
She has been a volunteer with the youth organisation for eight years – starting off as a civilian instructor and spending the past seven years in uniform.
She is now responsible for just over 30 cadets ranging in age from 12.5 up to 20, with a 50:50 split between boys and girls.
“My husband was involved and when my son was old enough he joined too,” she explains.
“The two of them were off most weekends having a great time and I was left at home with the housework.
“I helped out at the local squadron now and again with admin and other things.
“I got to know the cadets and saw the change in their confidence levels and development of skills.
“I have been involved in other youth organisations in the past but when I saw what the Air Cadets could offer I just had to be a part of it.”
The Air Cadets, which has squadrons across Tayside, Fife and beyond, offers activities to teenagers ranging from flying, gliding, shooting and adventure training to completing Duke of Edinburgh Awards and learning about engineering.
Yet Fl Lt Milne says recruitment can be a challenge as there are a lot more activities available for young people these days.
The “real challenge”, she says, is getting adult volunteers involved. She adds: “People’s lives are much more complex than in the past with more and more responsibilities.
“It can be quite a commitment for most to give up time in the evening or weekend to supervise a group of young people.”
However, she said being involved opens up so many rewarding opportunities for adult volunteers too – helping young people achieve their potential.
Volunteering is also at the heart of Showcase the Street which is based in a former jute mill at Manhattan Works in Maryfield, Dundee, and which provides outreach work for youngsters in Angus and Perthshire.
It’s roots date back to 2003 when a group of girls came to the current chairman Fergus Storrier, 52, – a former Tayside police officer – looking to develop a dance studio in Arbroath.
Since then it has grown to a much wider charity operating from Stonehaven to Inchture and offering community dance classes to young people aged 3 to 18 years mainly in areas of deprivation and rural areas.
And interestingly, its largest base of volunteers is young people themselves.
“I guess one of the things that always frustrated me as a police officer was young people always getting a bad reputation,” says Mr Storrier.
“There are loads of young people out there who are doing extremely positive things.
“One of the things that we do in our five dance shows every year is present certificates to all of our volunteers. We’ve got examples of volunteers who have done 1000 hours of volunteering.
“We are keen to recognise the positive impact that these young people make to their communities.”
Mr Storrier welcomed the dawn of tighter child protection laws. However, he concedes this can make it more difficult for some organisations to recruit volunteers because of recent negative press.
He adds: “Certainly my experience of the PVG system now is that it’s a lot tighter, it’s a lot stricter, it’s a lot easier to identify issues and there’s a lot more agencies working together to identify those issues before they happen. That can only be a good thing.”