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Projects from around the world

Baytree Centre: a bright light on the Brixton Road

Tags: Education, Youth, equality, UK
300 Brixton Road is a bright light on the horizon of Lambeth, one of London’s most deprived and troubled areas. It’s the home of the Baytree Centre where for 20 years now 1,000s of women and girls who are local residents yet come from all over the globe, have been receiving help with a host of skills ranging from literacy and numeracy to parenting and ballet!

Back in the 1980s, inspired by the message of St Josemaria Escriva “…to feel their brotherhood with their fellow men, and to manifest these sentiments in a disinterested service of humanity.” (Conversations with Monsignor Escriva de Balaguer, No.31), and with the encouragement of Fr Hugh Thwaites SJ who did such sterling work for the local people in the wake of the Brixton riots, a few women of Opus Dei began to work with others, who were not necessarily Christian, and acquired the disused warehouse which became the Baytree Centre.

Overall, Lambeth is a relatively deprived borough. Two in five children in the borough are living in poverty. It is also incredibly diverse: there are over 130 different languages spoken here and nearly three-quarters of school pupils are from an ethnic minority background. Baytree has worked hard to attract funding, and has been supported by local public funding sources, European, national and multinational corporations, private companies, as well as national and local trusts and foundations, who see the what an impact it is having on the area. Baytree also has some private benefactors who support their work with their generous contributions according to their means.

To watch the Video of Baytree Centre clik here
To watch the Video of Baytree Centre clik here
CEO Caroline Guarnaccia explained: “Our beneficiaries are women from the refugee, asylum seeker, immigrant and settled-resident local communities, as well as girls aged between 6 and 19 years. They are part of our socially disadvantaged communities and are in danger of social exclusion, which is why this place – which welcomes everybody – is such a good melting-pot. We are the only non-faith-specific, non-culture-specific women’s group in South London, and everyone feels at home here.” The words of a former Baytree student H. Seglah illustrate this point: “I have never seen such love and unity since I came to this country as I have seen among you, my colleagues, my teachers and all others at the Baytree Centre.”

A former Mayor of Lambeth, Cllr Marion Schumann, commented when visiting Baytree back in the early days: “I believe God helps those who help themselves to create a new beginning. Baytree has done this, bringing together the private sector, the local government and local volunteers to make the project work”.

The PEACH project at the Baytree Centre

P- Parents,
E- Education,
A- Achievement,
CH- Character... It’s PEACH!

Educate a boy, and you educate an individual. Educate a girl, and you educate a community. (African proverb)
“In PEACH, the emphasis on the parents’ role is so important, we can work together in harmony for the girls’ best interests. We try to ensure that the markers of success are more than just in the material or consumerist spheres. Ultimately we want to help in the formation of happy, aspirational young women.”

Those involved in the PEACH project in the Baytree Centre in Brixton believe that parents are the first and most important educators of their children. PEACH –Parents, Education, Achievement and Character building – aims to support parents in their task as the primary educators and role models for their children. PEACH also helps girls by giving them personalized study support each week from trained volunteers, and regular workshops in maths, literacy and science.

Aimed at those who are hard to reach, unemployed, on low income or benefits, and generally those disengaged from the community, Baytree tends to reach its target community in Lambeth and Brixton via word of mouth from former or current beneficiaries. Baytree is now well-established, celebrating its 20th year of service in 2012, and people keep flooding through the door. Thousands of families have been given personalized support to help improve their situation via this supplementary education. Many of the mothers are very young and 40% of them are single parents. Parents have regular one-to-one meetings with the Parent Service Coordinator, with whom they draw up their individual Character Development Programme with personal goals for their children to achieve each month, in terms of respect, responsibility, persistence, etc. They also attend a parents’ forum one day a term, for face-to-face meetings with their children’s mentors.

Suzanne Mahon, 27, formerly a music teacher in an inner-city comprehensive school and now one of the PEACH project leaders, explains that the volunteers are trained via bi-weekly group workshops and helped to build tailor-made action plans for the children and their families in regular Character Development Workshops. The volunteers, who come from all walks of life, are recruited via University Fairs, the Guardian’s “Hands-on London”, Gumtree, etc. Once trained, they give one-on-one academic support to the children and monitor their progress via the National Foundation for Education Research tests at the beginning and end of programmes.

Volunteers act as mentors for the young people for an academic year or for as long as the mentee wishes, meeting their pupils on a weekly basis at Baytree and helping them with their learning and also with character development. Isabelle Derobert, a Fund Manager for a major City bank, found Baytree via the Lambeth Council website in 2009. She finds the volunteering very rewarding and the running of PEACH well-organized, creating a dynamic experience for volunteers, parents, staff and students. She particularly appreciates the strong community feel and diverse mix, as, she says, “often in Brixton Latinos and Caribbeans for example, don’t mix… Baytree however brings them all together, everyone feels at home there and they can hang out with whoever.”

Isabelle finds the freshness and simplicity of the young people very energizing. “There is great merit for a start in those young people getting themselves to Baytree by ten a.m. on Saturday mornings. I work long hours all week, and I find that time with the young people here gets my mind completely off work”. Once a month the mentors stay on for brunch with the PEACH staff, bringing food to share and taking the opportunity for a lot of interaction and experience-sharing.

Lidya and her daughter at Baytree Centre
Lidya and her daughter at Baytree Centre
Fatimah Kelliher, who works in international development at the Commonwealth Secretariat, has been a PEACH volunteer for two years. She grew up in Brixton Hill and knows the area inside out, and also how insular and isolating it can be. She was fortunate to go to university in Sussex, finding it a mind-blowing experience: “I met such different sorts of people there in comparison to the estate where I grew up.” She knows how hard it is for people from her background to have access to information, as they do not know where to look for things such as scholarships, or that every university has a bursary programme for students who fall below a certain income bracket. Fatimah is dedicated to addressing this inequality of opportunity, issues of gender inequality in development, and equality issues around education. “In PEACH, the emphasis on the parents’ role is so important, we can work together in harmony for the girls’ best interests. We try to ensure that the markers of success are more than just in the material or consumerist spheres. Ultimately we want to help in the formation of happy, aspirational young women.”

It certainly seems to be working, PEACH has excellent retention rates for both mentors and mentees. In their most recent report (July 2011), 80% of the girls demonstrated an improvement in academic performance, study habits and virtues, and 80% of parents demonstrated improved engagement in school, Baytree or the community.

In the words of one volunteer mentor: “I have been working with M. for 18 months and have seen a massive improvement in her behaviour, motivation, and respect for me and others at Baytree. She struggles in group settings and we are still working on some anger issues, but one to one we have a great time and are able to cover a lot of ground.”

Another commented,“A. was initially quite restless and easily distracted, particularly when doing homework such as literacy, which she found difficult. We have focused on her literacy, and I find that she can now focus for longer on this subject, without getting bored. Her mum has said that she is much more willing to read and write of her own accord, and concentrate on this than she was previously.”

Apart from academic achievement PEACH has a definite effect on families. “It has made a huge difference to us. We now eat together at the table. Before, I was in the kitchen, L was on the sofa, and the little one was the only one at the table. Now we sit and talk whilst eating and my relationship with L has improved.” (Parent)

The fruits – forgive the pun – of PEACH are already visible but they will undoubtedly be seen in the years to come when these young girls strive to fulfill their potential and play leading roles in their family and working lives. That effort starts now – or when the alarm clock rings on Saturday morning and the temptation to stay in bed is strong.

Naturally there are inherent difficulties in running a programme that relies on volunteers to deliver it. Baytree struggles to recruit mentors in time for the beginning of the school year, and interviews and replaces mentors throughout the school year. As the project grows, there are more and more applications from girls each year (through no advertisement other than word of mouth) and the need for more mentors to commit. If you think you could spare an hour or two each week please do contact Suzanne Mahon – details below. It could make all the difference to a young girl’s life – and her family’s. “Before I participated in PEACH, my marks in school were not that good, but my mentor has improved my marks.” (Mentee)

“I think it has improved my marks in school because you learn new things, I got 18 out of 20 in my test.” (Mentee)

For more information: www.baytreecentre.org

The Baytree Centre is a social inclusion project of Dawliffe Hall Educational Foundation, registered charity 278720

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