The real-life fairy godmothers: Meet the mums whose youth centre is helping deprived children

When terrifying riots broke out on their local streets, Burnley mums Fran Monk and Amanda Chapman set up a youth centre to tackle the antisocial behaviour at the root of the trouble. And the tough love they show the youngsters has transformed the whole community. Catherine O’Brien meets a truly dynamic duo 

Fraser Street Project feature

Fran (left) and Amanda set up Burnley's Fraser Street Project five years ago

With his furtive gaze, hunched shoulders and gruff manner, Steven Jones looks like what he is – a teenager with a chequered history. As a member of a gang called the Duke Bar Massive in his home town of Burnley, Lancashire, he spent most of his early adolescence drinking and getting into fights. Now 19, he admits to convictions for aggravated assault and criminal damage. If you were to see Steven coming towards you in his hoodie, you would almost certainly cross the road to avoid him.  

However, I have met Steven not on a bleak street, but at the Fraser Street Project, a centre that is the brainchild of Fran Monk and Amanda Chapman. Ten years ago Fran, a mother of six, and Amanda, who has two daughters, decided that rather than complain about the disaffected young people terrorising their neighbourhood, they would do something to help them. They started by ferrying teenagers to the only available youth club on the other side of town. Today they have their own base in a converted warehouse on the eponymous Fraser Street and Steven is one of their 300 regulars. ‘If it wasn’t for this place, I’d be in prison by now,’ he says.

Fraser Street is much like any other in Burnley’s rundown Rakehead district. There are no gardens or trees, just terraced houses with front doors that open directly on to the pavement. The Project’s warehouse is an eyesore sandwiched between them with boarded-up windows, peeling paint and a ‘Danger: Fragile’ sign attached to the corrugated iron roof. But step over the threshold and the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. ‘Places are a bit like people,’ says Fran. ‘What you see on the outside isn’t always what you’ll find on the inside.’

Now 45, Fran has lived in Burnley all her life. The daughter of factory workers, she left school without a single qualification thanks to undiagnosed dyslexia, and admits to having been something of a heavy-drinking, drug-taking tearaway during her own youth. Today, however, she is a reassuring combination of earth mother and bossy big sister. ‘She’s tough, and she can be scary,’ says Steven. ‘But whenever we need help, she’s there for us.’

Fran is old enough to remember Burnley when it was still a semi-prosperous mill and mining town. Its decline to one of the most deprived in Britain has been gradual, but a turning point came one Friday night in June 2001 when riots erupted on the streets. Fran and her electrician husband Jason remember waking to the drone of police helicopters and the smashing of petrol bombs and bricks through shop windows around the corner from their home. The clashes, which lasted three days and caused an estimated £1 million worth of damage, were instantly blamed on racial tensions between the Asian and white communities. It was an easy assumption to make – to this day the two communities are sharply segregated, with Asians occupying one side of the Colne Road, and whites the other.

Fraser Street Project feature

Fraser Street Project feature
Fraser Street Project feature

The centre is a focus for the whole community, offering local children everything from after-school clubs to a recording studio 

‘But everyone knew that the riots had little to do with race, and much more to do with drugs and antisocial behaviour,’ says Fran. An official inquiry later confirmed that the disturbances had arisen from the grinding poverty that made aimless teenagers from all backgrounds prey to drug dealers and gang culture.

Fran’s initial reaction after the riots was to leave Burnley. ‘I had a friend who moved to France and we considered following her. But my children didn’t want to go. That is when I decided that if we were staying, then we had to try to make it a better place.’

She joined a residents’ association and, in between working part time in a café, enrolled upon a youth-worker training course. Alongside her in the class was Amanda, a former canteen cook who had just had her first baby. Unable to afford to go back to her old job because of childcare costs, Amanda had embarked upon the course in the hope of finding a new direction and ‘because the college provided a crèche and gave me my one chance in the week to engage in some adult conversation’.

Despite the age difference – at 34, Amanda is a decade younger than Fran – the women clicked. ‘We both realised that if we wanted to stop the local children from being a nuisance on our streets, we had to give them something to do,’ says Amanda. Through the residents’ association, Fran secured a minibus from the community warden to take children and teenagers to Brunshaw Youth Centre two miles away and Amanda offered to help. A year or so later, they rented a hall closer to where they lived and got hold of a second-hand pool table and a music system. ‘We started with 15 children coming one night a week. Within months, we had 150 on the register,’ says Fran.

‘We started with 15 children – within months we had 150 on the register’

It didn’t all go smoothly. They had to move on from their first hall after complaints about the noise. Undeterred, they found somewhere else, and invited the community in. ‘We ran cooking days during the holidays, and the residents who came just couldn’t believe the enthusiastic teenagers serving their meals were the same people they had moaned about hanging out on their streets,’ says Amanda.

In 2005, Fran noticed that the warehouse on Fraser Street – two streets away from her own home – was available for rent. Most recently used as a shop, it was in a dilapidated state, ‘but I knew it would provide us with the space to really make something happen,’ she says. She and Amanda secured some initial funding from the Henry Smith social welfare charity –  and the Fraser Street Project was born. ‘We started by opening two nights a week – now we are open every day bar Sunday,’ says Fran. Friday and Saturday nights are their big nights for teenagers, but the Project isn’t just the ‘youthie’ but a hub for the community. On the midweek afternoon I visit, a local band is rehearsing in the recording studio and several teenagers have dropped by to use the computer suite, but there is also an after-school club taking place in the hall, and later, several mothers are coming in for a social evening.

The trans-generational approach is, explains Amanda, essential to reducing tensions. She introduces me to Charlotte O’Connell, 25, who has popped in with her children Joshua, six, and Lauren, five. ‘When you see some of these boys on the street, they can be quite intimidating,’ says Charlotte, pointing to a group of 16- and 17-year-olds playing snooker in the corner. ‘But then they come in here, and we get to recognise each other. They play with my kids and it breaks down the barriers.’

Fraser Street Project feature

Fraser Street Project feature
Fraser Street Project feature

Steven, above right, has turned his life around with the help of the centre

Fran and Amanda have targeted younger children by organising activities such as crafts, a singing group and cooking sessions because, as Fran points out, ‘The seven- to 14-year-olds are the ones that you want to be working with – to catch them early, before the trouble starts.’

Their most crucial work, though, still centres on providing a safe haven for teenagers whose home lives are often desperately chaotic. Fran tells me about Lisa, a 17-year-old whose drug-addict mother has been yo-yoing in and out of prison throughout Lisa’s upbringing. Lisa was thrown out of school at 14 because of her aggressive behaviour and came to the Project initially because she’d heard that she would get a free meal. ‘No one was feeding her at home. She’d had to give up her bed because her elder sister had moved back in with her two children, and she was sleeping on a chair in the living room. I told her she could stay at my house for a while, and we helped her to get a place at college. She’s now moved in with a friend. What she needed more than anything was a safe place to lay her head at night.’

Many teenage boys at the Project no longer attend school. ‘They are effectively raised without parenting,’ Fran continues. ‘Their mothers are either alcoholic or on drugs and, because they are too inadequate to even get their children to school, they tell the authorities that they are going to home school them instead. The kids then have no stability, no routine. They can’t read or write or express themselves and their self-esteem is at rock bottom. We did an anger-management session with some of them, asking them questions such as, “What scares you?” One said that his own temper frightened him and confessed that he couldn’t stop beating up his girlfriend. Another
said he was worried that he couldn’t spell, but he knew he would always be able to run drugs.’

Fran and Amanda have no quick fix for the teenagers they take under their wings, but they can offer empathy because their own backgrounds have been similarly tough. Fran admits she turned to drugs and drink after being raped at 15. ‘I didn’t tell anyone and that was my way of coping.’ She now has a daughter, Lynsey, 24, and five sons, Ben, 21, Robert, 19, James, 18, Joshua, 14, and Sam, 13. Ben is a trained nursery nurse and works at the Project, and the rest of the family often drop in to help.

Meanwhile, Amanda reveals that she grew up with a mother who suffered from depression and a father who struggled to control the aggressive side-effects of the drugs he had to take for epilepsy. She was bullied at school and spent several years in a violent relationship. ‘We’re able to say, “We’ve been there, we know how you feel,”’ she says. Amanda now lives happily with her partner Stuart, who works as a car valet for Nissan (but also
helps out at Fraser Street when he can), and their daughters Freya, eight, and Brianna, five.

‘If it wasn’t for the Fraser Street Project, I’d be in prison by now’

Both Fran and Amanda are caring but strict. They maintain firm boundaries at Fraser Street; anyone who turns up drunk is turned away – hauled away if necessary. In the kitchen, I chat with Ryan Coates, 13, who tells me that he has an ABC (an Acceptable Behaviour Contract, which is the precursor to an Asbo, an Anti-Social Behaviour Order) after being picked up by police for drinking and fighting on the street. ‘I came here when I was drunk, but Fran shut the door on me, so now I don’t drink and she lets me in.’ His friend Aaron Burrows, 15, has similarly learnt that he cannot behave at Fraser Street the way he does at home. ‘The thing is, I’d rather be here than at home because all that happens there is that me and my mum argue,’ he says. 

Ever since its inception, the Project has operated on a shoestring budget. ‘We begged and borrowed everything we could – from stationery to games and CDs for the stereo,’ says Amanda. They also put their own money in, buying extra loaves of bread and pints of milk during their weekly shop to start a breakfast club. However, local businesses
have since stepped in to support them. The baker Warburtons now provides the bread, housing association Calico has supplied computers, and the card company Hambledon Studios Hallmark gives them art equipment and has helped design their logo.

The Project also received a huge boost earlier this year when Prince Charles visited to witness the benefits of the financial support being given under his Business in the Community scheme. And in October, Fran and Amanda were heralded Women of Achievement at the Women of the Year Awards – a much deserved acknowledgement
of their inspiring work. Amanda is now paid a 36-hour-a-week wage through a charitable fund and Fran receives 12 hours’ pay a week from Lancashire County Council. The reality, though, is that they are each putting in at least 50 hours a week to keep the centre going. They are currently applying for charitable status which will allow them to more actively fundraise in the future.

Before I leave, I am invited to attend a presentation on a trip Fran and Amanda organised to Auschwitz. Fraser Street is located in a white community and most of the young people who use the centre are white – but Fran, Amanda and the other volunteers have set up links with youth centres frequented by Asians to break down racial barriers. Two years ago, in an effort to highlight the dangers of racial hatred, they took 16 teenagers, both Asian and white, to the site of one of the Holocaust’s most infamous atrocities. Steven Jones was among them. ‘That trip was a life-changer,’ he says. ‘It made me realise where hatred can lead and why fighting is not the answer.’ On returning from Auschwitz, Steven trained to be a youth worker and volunteered at Fraser Street. He hasn’t been in trouble with the police since. But now he is leaving – he has been accepted by the Army and is hoping to train as a signal support systems specialist. ‘It’s time to get out of Burnley and do something with my life,’ he says.  

‘We are hugely proud of Steven and we’re going to miss him dreadfully,’ says Fran. ‘But seeing teenagers like him turn their lives around makes everything we do here feel worthwhile.’

If you would like more information or wish to donate to the Fraser Street Project, please e-mail fraserstproject@googlemail.com

 

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