When I was 15 one of my best friends was a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair, called Cliff.
Being paralysed from the waist down after a bad car accident, Cliff hadn’t left his flat in 10 years. He was old, he was moody, he was racist, he smoked like a chimney (not just tobacco!), he swore like a sailor and drunk like a very thirsty fish.
Why on earth was this cantankerous old man one of my best friends? 2 reasons:
1. He just liked having me around!
Cliff took a genuine interest in the things I cared about. He would just sit and listen to me talk about guitars and computer games. He even bought me a large power kite one day after hearing me rave about them. He didn’t try to be like me, or pretend to be ‘one of the guys,’ he just genuinely cared about me and really did like spending time with me.
When I had major surgery, he got Iceland Home Delivery to send six large crates of junk food to my hospital bed (which fed all three Children’s wards in Blackpool Victoria Hospital). When I turned 16, he paid a taxi driver to bring a magnum bottle of champagne to my front door. What a freaking legend!
2. He gave me responsibility.
Cliff allowed me to rebuild his computers, cook him meals and do his shopping. I would tidy his house, sort his mail and charge the batteries in his wheelchair. I never had any doubt that I was valuable to him.
By the end of his life Social Services would no longer work with him. He would rage and throw things at them. I had the keys to his flat, became his next of kin and his sole carer. When Cliff died I organised his funeral – at 17. His estranged family didn’t come.
Short Safeguarding Note: For those of you with Spidey senses tingling (rightly so), my parents kept up a relationship with Cliff themselves and kept a closer eye than I was aware of.
Cliff’s Guide to Youth Work
In terms of healthy boundaries, this might not be the ideal job description for a youth worker. It does however, give us two very clear principles for youth work:
1. Show young people that you genuinely value your time with them.
Don’t fake it, don’t milk it and don’t try to be one of them. Just like them, and like hanging out with them. Show them extravagant acts of love. Don’t know how – here’s 55 ideas!
2. Give them clear genuine responsibility.
Young people don’t want to be consumers, they are wired for producing. Simple entertainment-driven youth work is now going to way of the dodo – and good riddance to bad sugar-fueld nonsense!
Get them to run things, to work on things, to lead things, to learn things, to research things, to design their own programs, to tell you what they want to learn about and to help teach each other. Let them know that they’re valuable because they are valuable, not because they boost your youth group numbers.
Let’s learn from Cliff and take the words value, extravagance and genuineness to their youth work ideals.
Thank you Cliff.