@_tomkirby interviews Sarah Prime of Switch, an Independent Christian Youthwork Project in Gracemount.
So what do you do here?
We run 8 clubs every week for young people from primary school age to 18. These include basketball, football, break-dance, and arts and craft. At each club we have a short talk where we teach stories from the Bible, talk about our faith in Jesus, or discuss important issues.
We also run a street team on a Friday night where we walk around the area around the youth-centre where lots of young people hang out, chat with people there, and be a positive influence.
What are you excited about at the moment?
Lots of things!
We’ve just started a new primary-age club, which is good to have something to invite younger children to (we meet kids out on a Friday night as young as 3!). It means that for these kids we can be a stable positive influence in their lives for a longer period of time, hopefully giving them somewhere to feel safe.
How did this project start?
My brother Andrew and I grew up in Liberton just down the road. We wanted to do something for all the young people who were never likely to come to church, who were hanging about on street corners. 8 years ago we started a basketball club, and as we got to know people, we realised how difficult some people’s lives were. We started running other clubs, and other volunteers joined us. In 2009 we started a regular street team on Friday evenings. In 2010 we moved house into Gracemount, and Switch became a registered charity (previously it was organised by Morningside Baptist Church). In 2011 I was employed part-time, and as of April this year, I’ve been working full time. I train and coordinate teams of volunteers as well as leading the program of clubs.
What have you learnt over your 8 years of living/working in Gracemount?
When I was younger I went on trips to volunteer on projects in Brazil and S.Africa, I met and saw first hand a lot of people living in very poor conditions. But later in Gracemount I was shocked by the amount of suffering that goes on locally. It’s a different kind of poverty. So many people have suffered the effects of drugs or alcohol in their families. Young people are facing a vicious cycle that it’s difficult to get out of the pattern.
When you see how great the needs are, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. But it’s amazing what you can see happen if you start small, with a group of people, and trust God. For example, since we started the Friday street teams, the police have reported a significant drop in crime in the area where we’ve been working. It’s become a safer place for young people.
What are the best things about living in Gracemount?
The people are the best thing! The young people are so full of character and friendly. They love meeting new people.
There’s a strong community feel, and people can be really protective of eachother.
Is the area changing? It looks different to a few years ago, now that the high flats have come down.
Some people are glad that the area is looking different, especially that the Marmion pub has been changed in a Tesco. People were getting fed up of the area being known by the Marmion shooting.
The crime rate has dropped. It feels as though there is a stronger sense of community now, but maybe we’re noticing it more as we’ve been here longer.
What’s it like for young people growing up in Gracemount at the moment?
They’re always very interested in who’s doing what, and what other people are into. This adds to the local community feel, but also means lots of peer pressure, which can lead to an increase in destructive stuff.
Many have tough family backgrounds, very few have two parents at home. Some have little expectation of getting a job when they finish school.
What do you feel the young people of Gracemount can contribute to the rest of the city (and world)?
They have so many gifts and skills, and are really unique individuals. Many don’t realise that what they can do is amazing, eg. We have found some seriously talented breakdancers, but it’s difficult to get them to be confident in their abilities.
Many have a great deal of life experience very young, which can lead to them being very caring towards eachother.
What motivates you to do what you do? Running 8 youth clubs a week isn’t easy!
There have been so many initiatives over the years in places like this, and they do help, but with so many problems, a deeper change is needed. This can happen through experiencing Jesus.
What do you mean by that?
It’s about having a hope that goes beyond this world. And about each person realising their value. You don’t have to chat much to find that so many people think they’re bad, and have a really low opinion of themselves. I’ve seen the change in people who realise how much they’re loved by God, and that someone did something massive for them.
Do you have hope for the situations you work in?
Everyone is different. One example that gives me hope, is when some kids with extreme behavioural difficulties came with me on a week away (to a ‘Christians in Sport’ camp). They were getting up early every morning to go for a run, doing structured stuff all day no problem. They were getting lots of positive encouragement all the time, and we saw a huge change in them. When they came back this even spilled over (for a while!), they started encouraging their friends at basketball. Culture can change.
What would you like to see Gracemount become?
Young people using their life experience to help others.
People proud of where they live, and talking about the positives.
At the moment drugs and alcohol are like idols, God could be there instead.
What do you mean by that?
Alcohol and drugs are things that cause people to orient their lives around them, but that cause harm and destruction.
There is a verse in Ezekiel [in the Bible] about God changing people’s heart of stone into a heart of flesh. I think this is about people changing from being guided by self, to submitting to God. Jesus never thought of self, or selfishness, but lived for God and for others. If lots of people could do this, it would deeply change the area.
Your faith obviously shapes the way you think about things, and what you do. What do you feel is the role of the church in Gracemount? Or what would it ideally be?
Gracemount is a very specific community, so it needs a local church that is relevant and applied to the local area. Lots of people never leave Gracemount, so there needs to be something nearby if they are going to be involved. A local church can be like an extended family, people who do life together. Within that there can be support for particular problems like giving up addictions, and a church can partner with other organisations to find the expertise for people that need it.
What would you reply to someone who suggested you are just trying to convert lots of people to your religion?
There’s never any pressure to convert. It’s about trying to love everyone we meet, and each young person who comes to the clubs.
If we were just trying to recruit lots of people to a church we’d do it in an easier area than here! We’ve been getting plenty of abuse for what we do.
Our faith gives us a sensitivity to the brokenness that people can feel, it’s about people’s whole lives.
We believe we can be a positive influence on the lives of the young people we meet. There is evidence that even having a safe environment where adults listen to what kids have to say can be really beneficial to their lives. In our work, such as the Friday street teams, we go to see young people on their own terms.
Our faith in God motivates us to keep working when things are hard, and to believe that people are able to change. It’s great if anyone works to support young people in an area like this, but we don’t see lots of people from anywhere else volunteering here.
What are your plans? What’s next?
There’s a recording studio in this building that we’d like to bring into use, so that some young people can learn new skills.
We need to build the sustainability of what we do. We want to be here for people in the long term, and maybe eventually work in different areas too.
Thanks for your thoughts and your time! There’s lots of other things I’d like to ask/hear about, but will have to save that for another time!