Sammy Odoi worked at a London Youth Offending Team before starting Wipers Youth. So what inspired him and why the name 'Wipers'?
I remember when I started work as a YOT worker. I was full of bags of enthusiasm and hope. I felt a sense of pride in my job in being able to help young people change their lives. But after a few years in the job my enthusiasm began to dwindle as I saw repeated patterns of young lives being wasted, and my capacity to intervene being limited by burdensome assessments, reports and paperwork. I remember thinking "this is not what I signed up for! I'm not really helping' anyone!
Getting set up
I toyed about for the next few years with the idea of formally setting up an independent youth project. But the defining moment came in 2013 after working with a young man called Benny (name changed) who had a life-changing impact on me.
Benny was a hard case from the beginning. From a broken home and an absent father, excluded from school at a young age and with previous offences of assault, robbery and supplying class A drugs, Benny was on the verge of being sent to prison when the Court gave him one last chance and sentenced him to an Intensive Support & Supervision (ISS) Order. This was a community order which required Benny to comply with an extensive and structured timetable of education and weekly activities which included weekends.
Benny was hard to engage. We had sessions where I felt like we were connecting but then this was usually followed by periods of non-engagement and aggressive resistance. At times I felt like we were beginning to establish a positive relationship but most of the time it felt like one step forward two steps back. He would often remark that he couldn't wait for his ISS Order to be finished so he didn't have to get up early on a Saturday (12pm was apparently far too early!). He was prone to spontaneous dooms-day outbursts in which he would shout that everything was a waste of time, my job was a waste of time and there was pretty much no point to anything! And after 5 and a half months of working with Benny I was almost starting to believe him!
“he would shout that everything was a waste of time, my job was a waste of time and there was pretty much no point to anything!”
But we pushed ahead and after almost six months of community activities, no-shows for job and college interviews and a couple of close-shave breach hearings for non-compliance we eventually got to the end of his ISS Order.
During his last Saturday ISS session I decided to take him for a drive around London. I remember the weather was terrible that morning and the rain was really coming down. We spoke for hours as we drove around and he really opened up and shared so much more freely than he had ever done before. When we got back to base we sat in the car talking for almost another hour. As he prepared to leave I reminded him that our time was over and congratulated him in getting through the past six months, encouraging him to stay focused in the months ahead. I repeated that he would still see his regular case worker but that our time was now over and I would no longer meet him for any more sessions. He paused, the car door partly open and he said
"But I'm going to see you again next week right?"
"No Benny, we're done. That's it". I was expecting him to express some sentiment of celebration that he now had his weekends back.
"But I will see you next week right?"
I repeated again "No Benny, your ISS is over".
He sucked his teeth as he stepped out the car and said "I'm going to do another move [commit a crime] so I can come back on ISS!".
I laughed at his joke as he shouted "laters" and disappeared into the rain.
A Clearer Vision
I sat in the car for almost an hour just staring out the window as the rain came down. Benny's joke had mended my damaged ego and made me believe that I had actually done some good – had actually made a connection with this young man who for the most part had appeared pretty much uninterested with anything I had to offer. But after the self-praising adulation had passed, I felt a distinct feeling of sadness for Benny. Behind the laugh and I could see the sincerity in his eyes. The daily phone calls, the pep talks had all been worth it. A healthy relationship had been formed. He had no other constructive adult figures in his life.
As I sat there in the car staring at the windscreen wipers as the rain poured down, I knew I had to make a change. I knew I had to do something different, something that mattered and I needed to do it now! I just wasn't going to be able to build the kind of relationships with young people that had the potential to really make a difference if I stayed in my current role. I needed another route – another vehicle if I was to help get young people like Benny to reach their potential.
That was the moment everything changed. That's when I got serious and put my plans and aspirations into action and set up Wipers – a clearer vision for a safer journey. We use a person-centered approach to help young people navigate through adolescence into adulthood. It's been an absolute blessing to get up every day and do what you love, knowing that it has meaning and purpose. And now, three years on so many more people have seen the vision and joined us on this journey to help impact the lives of even more young people.