Youth work is a community responsibility

Charlotte Cooper

Charlotte Cooper began as the full time Youth Worker at The Cube, which is supported by Churches Together, in late August. Here she talks to Derek Williams about her faith, aims and ministry.

Charlotte Cooper loves the saying that “it takes a village to raise a child”. She means that youth work is not just for parents and trained specialists. “We’ve lost the sense of being ‘we’ and have become very ‘I’ centred,” she reflects.

“We’re all part of a network and have something to offer each other,” she continues. “Young people crave authenticity and honesty, but the world is very inauthentic and teenagers are used to masking their real feelings.” She hopes to recruit further “open and respectful” volunteers for The Cube who can offer practical skills, listening ears and prayerful support.

The Cube has a Christian basis, but exists for the community and is not a traditional church club. Discrete opportunities for young people to explore faith are there if they wish. Charlotte makes no secret of her own faith but adds, “We don’t ‘fix’ people. We empower them to be transformed.”

Born in Kent before moving to Wales when she was nine, Charlotte was invited by a friend to a Scripture Union camp and then to a local church. There, aged 17, “I discovered my identity in God and the unconditional love of God that all teens struggle to understand. I know what it is to feel empty, to know that God-shaped ‘hole’, and what it is to be filled and given purpose.”

She studied theology at Exeter University, and in the summer holidays worked as a youth pastor at camps for under-privileged children in the United States. She has long sensed a call to work with young people. “I felt God say that I was to help break cycles in people’s lives.”

For the past three years she has been a Housemistress at a boarding school in Bristol caring for 16-18 year olds, the majority of whom are from overseas. Apart from the day job, she sang in a performance Gospel choir, volunteers with a charity providing breaks for siblings separated by the foster care system, and is on the management team of the same SU camp where she first encountered Christianity. She has led a Bible study group, enjoys cooking, entertaining, and caring for her cat. And, unusually for a pastoral worker, “I’m admin-brained. I like spreadsheets!”

Articulate and insightful, Charlotte offers this to adults who despair of teens buried in their phones: “We choose the lens through which we view the world. Teenagers see the world through the lens of technology and we can’t remove it. They’re unable not to have a phone, because they’ve always had it.” Older people (and, at 26, she includes herself), who can remember life without mobile technology, cope better with its pressures.

“Instead of imposing our perspective on a changed landscape, we can instead focus on timeless, positive things. Spend time with teenagers, create opportunities to do things together and if they photograph and share it be flattered not frustrated! Technology is only dangerous if it’s misused. Social media often presents unrealistic images as norms. Children think that what they see is the truth.” She suggests adults consider getting Instagram to better understand its draw and its challenges.

Teens are also under pressure to succeed and to fulfil others’ expectations. Here, Charlotte becomes still more passionate. The education system is broken, she claims. It’s so geared to passing exams that schools cut pastoral support and there are too few practical schemes for less academic students.

But she is no mere theoretician. She is also personable, and it shows. As we talk at a picnic table behind The Cube we are interrupted: her host’s child comes for a hug; a man with physical and learning difficulties quizzes her and holds her hand; people come to exchange greetings and lay plans. Each has her undivided attention. And when they depart, she picks up our conversation as if it had never paused.

“My role at The Cube will be primarily relational,” she says. “Individuals first. Then the community. I want to find out what young people here need, and cultivate what they can bring and offer. Youth work stands in the gap between children, the world, and their parents. People are people, whatever their age.” We’re back to the village, and empowerment.

The Cube is located in Symington recreation ground. It is supported by Churches Together in Harborough and funded by donations, hire fees, grants for special projects, and The Friends of the Cube. There is a part-time administrator, Julie Dunne, who can be contacted on 01858 419278; . This article first appeared in Quintet, the magazine for the Harborough Anglican Team.