Article Published with a byline in the regional newpaper Luton Today [27 August 2008
A Luton teenager whose life threatened to go off the rails after a family tragedy has managed to bring himself back from the brink and use his troubled past in a positive way.
16-year-old Gavin O’Brien uses his experiences, which include: school exclusions; drug use; aggressive behaviour; bullying; bereavement and past learning difficulties, to help others as a Peer Mentor at Stopsley High School.
Learning Mentor Angela Peck was so impressed by how he has: “effectively supported a number of students break down their barriers to learning,” and his “enthusiasm and his determination to succeed,” that she has nominated him for a SkillsTrain Young Person of the Year Award in Bedfordshire, also known as YOPEY.
If short-listed, Gavin has the chance to: attend a local award ceremony; mingle with his peers, sponsors and local dignitaries; and be in with a chance to win cash from a £2000 prize pool.
YOPEY is the creation of former national journalist Tony Gearing. Its aims to: reveal, recognise and reward youngsters in what it calls the YOPEY ‘Three Rs’.
The Hertfordshire father of two teens hopes that YOPEY acts as an incentive for more youngsters to make community contributions and creates a more accurate youth image in the media.
Gavin’s problems began ten-years-ago, when he was six-years-old. He was at home with his twin brother when a fire broke out. Gavin managed to escape the burning house but Sean died in the fire.
Gavin blames himself and has lived with the guilt since. It has affected his behaviour. Bouts of aggression led to school exclusions and it was not until he was year five that he resumed full-time education.
Gavin arrived at Stopsley High School in 2003 with what Angela describes as: “a statement for behaviour issues and learning difficulties”.
Years outside of full-time education meant: “his numeracy and literacy levels were way below average,” said Angela.
The specialist sports college has provided the perfect platform for Gavin to develop both personally and educationally. He benefits from the discipline that sport offers.
The Manchester United fan plays and is passionate about football. He also plays rugby and participates in athletics. “I use sport to control my temper,” he said. “If I can control my temper on the field, I can control it off the field”.
Like many youngsters, he prefers action to words. “I go to anger management classes”, he said, “but they don’t really help”.
With help from a teaching assistant and support from the school – Gavin has managed to catch-up academically. He has just finished his GCSEs and is optimistic about his marks. “I get my results this month,” he said. “I did better than I thought I would”.
He credits his success to both Angela and Stopsley High School. “Angela is very good support for me,” he said. “I don’t think I would be where I am today without her help – the whole school actually”.
He wanted to repay the faith shown in him – so at the end of year ten, he applied to become a Peer Mentor.
He went through a rigorous selection process. “Over 60 people applied for 12 places,” said Angela. “He successfully completed the initial application process, the two day training which was held during school holidays and then passed the interview that followed,” she said.
This was an additional workload on top of the pressures of GCSEs examinations and other commitments.
Now, for several hours a week during term-time – Gavin can be found organising appointments and: providing advice, support and dispute resolution for his caseload of younger pupils.
“I’ve used what I’ve learned over the years,” he said. “It helps I have experience”.
He gives the example of bullying – where he arranges the parties to come together. “I get them in to a room and get them to talk to each other,” he said. “More often than not there is success”.
His reward comes from the results. “I get enjoyment from the end-bit,” he said. “When they sort it out – and they are both happy”.
His advice and support is not limited caseload – it extends to his peers and friends.
There are areas where Gavin is uniquely qualified to offer guidance – or just to listen
“When my mate’s mum died, he came to me to help him deal with it,” said Gavin. “It’s because I understood what he was going through”.
He has also helped people with their drug problems. Again his experience comes in to play – having dabbled with drugs in the past himself. “I sit them down and tell them what they are doing to themselves,” said Gavin.
Some times listening and advice is not enough – as was the case with one friend. He staged a one man intervention. “I helped my mate get off coke,” he said. “I was with him all the time so he couldn’t do it.”
The school are proud of how far Gavin has come. So much so that when it came time for a government review of the school – he was asked to give a one-to-one interview with Ofsted inspectors.
Although the future looks bright – Gavin still has not fully come to terms with the death of his brother and continues to have flashbacks. “Every now and then I have moments,” he said.
Ten years on, the counselling sessions continue – but with limited success. “They help me deal with the guilt, make me think about it,” he said. “But I still feel very guilty”.
Nominations are now open for YOPEY Bedfordshire.
Visit: www.yopey.org for details and to see the latest nominees and previous winners.
Anyone can apply – this includes young people themselves.
Nominees must be aged between 10-25, live, work or study in the county, and give to others at home or abroad.
Applications can also be made by post.
Send a SAE to: Young People of the Year, PO Box 103, Hare Street, Ware SG9 0XD for an entry form.
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