Don’t tell me I can’t

31st May 2018

Homeless at 16, Mandy Coppin has shown determination and resilience to dedicate her life to helping young people for almost 40 years. Here, she tells Alison Cowie her remarkable story

Mandy Coppin was appointed CEO of Streetwise – the Newcastle city centre-based young people’s project – four years ago. She describes the role as a “swan song” to her youth work which has spanned four decades.

For Mandy – a woman who has worked with vulnerable young people across the North East – speaking to a business magazine takes her out of her comfort zone. “I feel a bit exposed talking about myself,” she says, adding: “I never like to put myself at the forefront”.

But Mandy’s story needs to be told as it is a demonstration of determination against the odds.

Mandy was born in Lincoln and spent her early years living in a picturesque rural community with her three brothers.

But when her father left her mum with no means to support her four children, the family was thrown into “complete chaos”.

When her mum met her step-father, the decision was made to move to Newcastle in search of work.

Swapping rural Lincolnshire for urban Forest Hall proved a challenge for Mandy and her siblings, who were physically and verbally bullied at school on a daily basis.

But over the next five years, Mandy settled into her new surroundings and made close friends.

Her life was turned upside down yet again at 16 when her mum and step-father returned to Lincoln with her younger siblings.

Mandy and her 18-year-old brother decided to stay in Tyneside and effectively became homeless, resorting to staying on friends’ sofas for more than a year.

“At the time, I had no family close to me, no home and was told I wouldn’t achieve much in my life,” Mandy recalls, “but I was determined and thought, ‘I’m not going to let this beat me’.”

With just a holdall of clothes and her school work, the displaced teenager worked two jobs while she continued her studies – eventually achieving A-levels in art and sociology.

With a keen interest in photography, Mandy was hoping to go to art college but, having fought so hard to stay in Newcastle, she was told she’d have to return to Lincoln to qualify for a student grant.

Forced to re-evaluate, the 18-year-old Mandy took a Community Programme Scheme (the forerunner to the Youth Training Scheme) job at North Shields’ police station as a darkroom technician.

Mandy, who was now sharing a flat with her friend, began volunteering at a young people’s project in Wallsend, working with young offenders.

It was an experience that was to transform her life.

“The young people were experiencing what I had been through – displacement, family breakdown and no support – and I thought I could relate to this and I might be able to help them,” Mandy says. “It triggered my love of wanting to do youth work.”

Mandy went on to study a community and youth work degree at Sunderland University. She spent her evenings working with vulnerable girls and young women on Wearside and as a detached youth worker on the Meadow Well estate in North Tyneside, where she and a fellow youth worker would take a Great Dane called Peter out with them.

“The dog helped to break the ice,” Mandy says. “Young people would come up and ask about the dog and it enabled us to start a conversation, get to know the young people and signpost them to the help and support they might need.”

At 25 years old, the young youth worker took on the responsibility to establish Cramlington Youth project, where she oversaw the build of the centre and spent the next eight years running various projects for the town’s young people, including a disability youth night.

“I was told I couldn’t start a club for young people with different abilities, but it was these young people who were asking for one to be set up so I persisted. The parents volunteered at the start and eventually, the young people started running the club for themselves.”

Mandy’s career has also seen her set up End House, Durham Young People’s Project, a one-stop shop offering counselling, advice and support to young people in Durham. After 10 years she then took up a post of assistant director taking responsibility of 14 projects across the North East at Children North East.

Mandy became CEO of Streetwise in 2014 and became head of the Newcastle city centre-based charity that provides free and confidential advice, counselling, sexual health and support services for people aged 11 to 25 years in an informal and non-judgemental environment.

Mandy – who was highly commended for her leadership at the North East Charity Awards in 2016 – is joined by a team of dedicated youth workers who assist young people from a range of backgrounds to inspire and empower them to make informed choices that will enhance their personal, social and emotional development, while equipping them with future skills.

“I think a lack of confidence and feelings of loneliness around our young people is really noticeable now,” Mandy reflects. “The internet and social media are brilliant but they can also be quite isolating for young people. They can now be bullied in their bedrooms or be excluded from friendship groups in a nanosecond and that’s creating a lot more vulnerability in young people.”

In taking on her current role, Mandy inherited a charity that was suffering with financial difficulties, and with more than 30 years of fundraising experience behind her, she has set about creating new initiatives to raise the £600,000 a year it takes for Streetwise to operate.

Mandy reveals that, currently, the charity receives funds from Newcastle City Council, Newcastle Public Health, the Newcastle Fund, Children in Need and Big Lottery Fund. It was also recently awarded £137,000 by Comic Relief to help black and ethnic minority young men access support services.

Streetwise supplements this funding with fundraising events including quizzes, raffles and outdoor music events.

Two years ago, Mandy organised an epic event to mark the charity’s 25th anniversary – which utilised her unusual pastime.

“When I turned 50, I decided I wanted to try 50 new things to challenge myself and one of those new experiences was to learn to fly a flexwing (microlight) aircraft,” she remembers.

But when Mandy visited the airfield for her first lesson, she overheard some pilots saying that women weren’t strong enough to manoeuvre the flexwing controls.

True to form, Mandy saw this as a challenge to prove her doubters wrong and she went on to gain her PPL pilot’s licence.

In 2016, Mandy was the only female pilot in a squadron of 42 flexwing aircraft that flew the length of the Tyne to mark the charity’s quarter-century birthday.

Mandy also reveals that, by the time this interview is printed, she will (weather dependent) have completed the journey for a second time on May 26, 2018, with an expected 100 pilots taking to the skies to raise funds for Streetwise.

With public funding abating, Mandy and her team are increasingly looking to the corporate world for support and were delighted when intu (the company that runs Eldon Square and the Metro Centre) announced it has adopted Streetwise as its chosen charity for 2018.

To encourage more North East businesses to support local charities like Streetwise, Mandy makes an impassioned plea:

“We have some amazing companies in the North East but so often they look to support national charities. They must be mindful of what’s happening in the local community – because the young people we often support are their future workers and can be amazing in these companies.”

Mandy concludes: “It’s so easy to judge young people who are going through such upheaval and trauma and to write them off, but with the right support at the right time, they can reach their potential and achieve the things that other people say they can’t.”

Streetwise
www.streetwisenorth.org.uk
@StreetwiseN

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