44-year old Shaun has his own business running a barber shop in Peckham. It was through this that he came into contact with young people who were at risk of progressing down the same route he did in his teens and twenties – one which led to a 14 year prison sentence.
Shaun got his life back on track after prison and secured a job in the City working for a software development company. When made redundant, he returned to barbering – something he had done before prison.
“I thought I was pretty clued up about what was going on when it came to the streets,” said Shaun. “But dealing with the youths in my shop I realised there was a whole change of culture and dynamics. It’s almost like organised crime and young kids are targeted. I was always talking to the kids who would come to my shop and mentoring seemed like a natural thing to do.”
A friend introduced Shaun to St Giles Trust. “I started volunteering for the Children and Families team.” This work involved going into Pupil Referral Units to help young people at risk of getting involved in crime and helping them re-engage with education. Shaun quickly developed an appetite for this and moved to volunteer on our SOS Project. “I started volunteering with Carlie Thomas on SOS going into prisons and working with clients before their release. The more I got involved I thought it was more up my street.”
He started training as a Peer Advisor through the London Peer Hub whilst volunteering and still also running his barber shop. “I was working in my own business and taking two days a week to come in here unpaid which was costing me really. A lot of other trainees were saying to me ‘oh don’t worry you’ll get a job soon,’ and I thought ‘well I’ve got a job’. But because of the direction I wanted to go in terms of doing a mentoring/training programme I wanted to gain experience and learn a broader picture.”
Shaun has a long-term ambition of developing a mentoring programme for young people at risk whilst offering them barbering training. “I know how to talk to youths,” said Shaun. “I know how to direct them and how to engage with them. But on a professional level in terms of legislation I know I need to learn and gain experience in that side of things.”
He now works on our SOS Project as a caseworker in Bexley – an area which is seeing a growing problem with gangs despite its suburban, leafy location. As such, many of his young clients and their parents are unprepared for the harsh realities of this lifestyle. “There is one Mum I’m working with who has done everything for her son,” says Shaun. “She doesn’t understand how he got like that and how to get back out of it. So she leans on me a lot for support because she’s really at the end of her tether. It’s a whole new culture for her and she’s not aware of how it happened.”
Shaun highlights the allure of social media in playing a key role. “I definitely think parents need to be made more aware of what is going on with social media. Kids are over-exposed to violence and sexual content - they sit on a phone in a nice house, see the gang life and emulate the slang, the attitude and pick up all the negative things.”
And he knows how tough it can be for parents. “There is too much going on. It’s all portraying a lifestyle that’s not even real. I see grown men and women who are addicted to this stuff so it’s highly impressionable to a child. You’ve got kids walking around with balaclavas for no reason – just because it’s a fashion.”
With exposure to gangs available at the swipe of an iPhone, people like Shaun are crucial in helping demystify some of the myths that are put online about this lifestyle – and offering non-judgemental, wise advice to those who have already been affected by it along with the support to help them break free.