My shopping list reads: cherry tomatoes, grapes, blueberries, carrot sticks, celery, pitta bread and hummous. I’ll need to get two packs of everything because the students at City Academy devour the lunchtime LifeZone snacks before they’ve hit the table. Especially the cherry tomatoes, which Daniel*, a year 7 student, has discovered a mild obsession with. This, I think, is definitely progress. At the beginning of the term the hummous was given a wide berth by everyone. “What is THAT?!” people cried, holding their noses. “It looks like sick!” But after some gentle coaxing by the youth workers and tentative ‘dipping’ the students at City Academy now dive into the hummous as if it were going out of fashion.
Food is a great leveller and conversation starter, and MAP’s youth and advice workers see it as a way of sparking good relationships with young people. The LifeZone is not all about bringing hummous into the lives of young people however—although healthy eating and familiarity with fresh fruit and veg is a bonus. The LifeZones are spaces where young people can self-refer into any of the Early Action interventions that MAP currently offers across three Norwich high schools: counselling, advice and youth work.
Before the bell goes for lunch, Youth Worker Paul bounds into the kitchen and greets the lunch staff with a big smile and a bunch of celery that needs chopping. They are more than happy to oblige. Meanwhile Georgie, the Advice Worker, and I scoot into the library to borrow two round tables for the snacks and one for flipchart paper and set ourselves up in the atrium.
I write them up on the flipchart paper and Georgie gets the pens ready. Paul’s back with a plate piled high with yummy celery; I get the referral forms ready Georgie tears open the hummous and puts her sign up: ‘ask me for advice’. We’re ready to go. Just in time, the bell rings and the familiar roll of thunder signalling feet on stairs sounds.
Our first LifeZone guests are a group of year 7s who like to hang out while the queue for lunch dies down. “Hey, it’s MAP!” one of them shouts and they plonk themselves in front of the snacks. In exchange for a handful of blueberries they write down their answers to our question of the day. Their thoughts are interesting, some facetious: it doesn’t take long for someone to write ‘no school’. One student however writes ‘proper support and help with issues,’ another, ‘exam stress’. Simple activities like this show us what’s really going on in schools and how the students are feeling.
About half way through lunch a year ten girl approaches the area, she’s hanging back a bit, assessing the scene. She looks nervous. I smile and offer her tomato. “Would you like to chat?” I ask. She nods and comes over. “Can I talk to someone about counselling?”
“Definitely,” I say. “How about somewhere private, away from all the hummous and chaos?” She manages a laugh.
The school has given us a couple of rooms we can use at lunchtimes—to have private conversations in. I take a referral form and appointment card with me. “I think I could do with some counselling,” the girl says. But I’m not sure how to do it.
“You’ve definitely come to the right place” I say.
I explain how the referrals work: we fill in a simple form together and I pass it to Joyce, the lead counsellor with Early Action, who does the initial assessment with all new young people. I go over what confidentiality means and how counselling works. Then she tells me what’s prompted her coming to speak to us and I make a few notes on the form. I’m so glad she’s reached out to us.
“This is the first time I’ve talked about any of this,” the girl says. She seems visibly lighter.
There’s no waiting around for appointments with our referral system and I’m able to give the girl a card with a time and date on it for her initial assessment. It’s like handing someone a lifeline just when they need it.
“Come and see us at the LifeZone anytime,” I say as we part ways.
The bell will soon go for form time; 50 minutes has whizzed by. I get back to Paul and Georgie who are both surrounded by young people. Georgie is explaining the advice work she offers, and writing down appointment times for students who want some CV help. Paul is having some kind of debate about the merits of celery. I’m glad there’s three of us on LifeZone duty, we can connect with as many people as possible that way.
There’s the bell, the atrium clears in a matter of seconds. All we are left with is an empty tub where the cherry tomatoes once were, and a few blobs of hummous on the table.