This Birkenhead Community Project Offers Free Food And A Future To A 'Forgotten Community'

The Scheme That Fed Kids Who Would Have Gone To Food Banks This Summer Holiday

"We haven’t got bad kids here," Lynne Cullens insists. "Because if we did, what we did here would make no difference.

"They are good kids in bad situations."

Cullens runs the Tranmere Community Project (TCP) in Birkenhead - one of the most deprived areas of the country.

Working from a graffiti-strewn building, "it's getting washed off soon", on a residential street, Cullens and her team of teachers and youth workers provide an essential service.

Children expelled from school, or close to being expelled, are referred to the centre to deal with their behavioural problems and be persuaded that education is worthwhile - and, over the summer holidays, to eat lunch, which some would otherwise have to go without.

Of course the root causes are many. Family breakdown in the area is common. "We don't do fathers day," local minister Steve Carpenter jokes dryly.

One 13-year-old girl was taken in by the Project after failing at school. She had been looking after her younger siblings almost single-handed. There was little emotional room left in her head for maths and science lessons. The TCP gave her that space and a chance at a future.

The TCP aims to convince children that education is worthwhile

"Anger is a natural emotion, you don't want to supress anger, it's how you manage it," Cullens says of how the children that come through the door are taught.

The TCP's alternative education scheme shuns the "boot camp" approach of many others like it.

"This isn't that," Cullens explains. "This is getting them to reflect on the consequences of their actions and why they are carrying those actions out. We work with them on anger management, issues of self worth. Where are you going? Where is your behaviour leading you to?"

There are "strict boundaries" of what is acceptable, but the imposition of rules for rules sake is avoided.

Cullens notes watching a recent TV programme that showed a similar centre to hers in the south of England that had a more military-style approach. She does not think it works. "The kids were throwing chairs and swearing at staff. We don't get any of that."

The 70% success rate in getting children back into school is highlighted as proof the method works. Positive testimonials from the students also attest to its success.

"I'm not as naughty anymore, I want to go back to school and not mess it up," says one.

I attend here every day and I am able to manage my anger," says another.

One more adds: "I'm excited to go back, but have got attached. I am gutted I've got to leave."

Cullens says proudly: "These are kids the school system can't cope with and they are saying, 'actually we want to commit to embracing life's opportunities'."

A child not being in school is something the Tranmere Community Project devotes term time to addressing. But over this summer, it switched its role to the opposite problem – children being at home.

Or more precisely, how to feed them.

Children in Birkenhead, Merseyside, live in one of the most deprived areas in the country [file photo]

Three days a week, the "Holiday Food and Fun" project has seen local children rush into the centre to play games, make crafts and eat a free lunch.

It is one of many programmes promoted by Birkenhead's Labour MP, Frank Field to "prevent the queues for food banks getting even longer" in his constituency.

Reverend Carpenter begins the morning's fun, food and games with a short Christian story. "Jesus was into picnics," he says, holding two small loafs of bread and a can of tinned tuna. It is the Feeding of the Five Thousand.

He tells the children: "I like that little story when I have had other people turn me away and reject me."

In many ways, Carpenter says once the children have run off to play, Birkenhead is a "forgotten community". People outside have forgotten about it. And people within have forgotten about each other.

Distrust of neighbours is high, he says. He worries that rather than the shared struggles of families on low wages pulling people together, it is isolating them.

But for Becky, a young single mother to five-year-old Rose and seven-year-old Joey, the TCP holiday programme has helped to turn that around.

Where she used to live, ten minutes down the road but a world away, "there was nothing".

"I was stuck in the house. I didn't know anyone, I didn't know the neighbours, I didn't really speak to anyone.

"There was nothing for the kids to do apart from play out in the road. Or if it's raining and they are stuck in you've got to find the money to take them out places."

In a community where a high proportion of children receive free school meals, finding extra money to feed and entertain them during the long holidays is not easy.

Lynne Cullens: "Anger is a natural emotion"

As Joey tries his hand at circus tricks, she adds with relief at the service offered by the TCP: "Even if the weather is really bad we can still can come and they are entertained and have little bit of lunch."

"They listen to what we have to say," Becky explains with a smile and in a tone that suggests that is not a common experience.

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