A social enterprise is launching a new academy in a former bank in Caernarfon to invest in vulnerable young people across Gwynedd in the wake of the Coronavirus lockdown.
The charity, Gisda, is opening the Academi Cyfleon (Opportunities Academy) to give jobless and homeless young adults a much-needed leg up.
Grant support is enabling it to open a vital drop-in and learning centre in the building that used to house the Nat West on the Maes.
Young people will have the chance to gain qualifications in practical subjects such as food hygiene, hospitality, health and safety, gain social media skills and discover outlets to enhance their creativity.
Gisda Chief Executive Officer Sian Tomos said the ground floor will be transformed into a community hub which will help struggling young people get their lives on track in the aftermath of the pandemic.
A second arm of the project will be based in Blaenau Ffestiniog, helping provide a strong safety net of support and advice for at-risk young people aged 16-24 right across Gwynedd.
It comes amid growing fears among youth workers and health experts that long-term impacts of the Coronavirus lockdown and subsequent easing of restrictions could potentially leave many struggling young people on their knees.
They particularly fear for those in deprived areas where problems of poverty, unemployment and mental health issues are already prevalent.
These problems are likely to be exacerbated as budget-conscious companies axe jobs and streamline workforces to make up for financial losses wreaked by the pandemic.
Plans to convert the bank premises, a few doors away from Gisda’s existing Caernarfon base, have long been in the pipeline but have now been escalated to help counter economic devastation and the threat of job cuts.
This initial pilot scheme has received funding help from the Welsh Council for Voluntary Action, The Steve Morgan Foundation, the European Social Fund and the Community Foundation Wales.
The bank building has lain empty for nearly three years since Nat West closed its Caernarfon branch. But the new funding has paved the way for its conversion into a spacious hub adhering to social distancing rules while offering valuable advice, practical life skills, well-being support, and a tutoring facility in the form of an online ‘virtual college’.
Sian said Gisda is collaborating with the Gwynedd Council regarding the development of further youth orientated plans for the building over future years.
She said: “This project will be key to helping desperate young people find work and an income in what is expected to be one of the biggest economic downturns for decades.”
Among those welcoming the project is talented artist, Zack Robinson, who benefited first hand from Gisda’s acclaimed support network, but who now fears many of his contemporaries may slip by the wayside if hands are not quickly outstretched to help them through one of the most difficult periods in Welsh history.
Zack who works at the Gisda Caffi in Caernarfon says the online learning opportunities will be a particularly essential resource for young adults whose lives have been disrupted by the health crisis and associated economic setbacks.
Zack received practical help from Gisda as a teenage care leaver trying to negotiate his way through the demands of adulthood.
He now lives independently in Caernarfon, is employed at the cafe and, thanks to support from a Gisda personal adviser, he has nurtured his talent for art. He is studying towards an arts degree and during lockdown he created a three-dimensional mini model of Caernarfon, depicting the way silent, empty shops and nearby townhouses looked in the unprecedented lockdown situation.
He posted images of the model on the Gisda Facebook site and detailed his reasons for creating it.
He explained: “It kept me busy through these hard times and has helped my mental health. I hope we never forget this experience and take as much as we can from it. We all have to stay strong and help each other in every way possible.”
Gisda Support and Development Manager,Lyndsey Thomas will supervise the project.
She said all measures possible must be taken to counter an expected surge in youth unemployment as Wales comes out of the lockdown situation.
She said: “I genuinely fear for the future of our younger generations and for vulnerable young people in particular. Those already facing issues around homelessness, unemployment, and struggling with their mental and physical health will be affected so much more severely than ever before.
“As government furlough funding comes to an end many will inevitably be made redundant and left with little or no income. We risk their confidence and their positivity levels falling through the floor. It’s imperative we take steps now to give them a leg up and support them through this crisis.”
In addition to Lyndsey, Gisda is aiming to employ two project officers. One, Sophie Knight, will be based out of Caernarfon and the other, yet to be appointed, will based in Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Sophie who has a degree in clinical health, was previously a therapeutic key worker with Gisda, helping homeless people to gain life skills and become practically and financially independent.
She said: “This project aims to tackle some of the stigma young people have, provide an opportunity for young people to reach their full potential and help them get back on their feet after the pandemic period.
“I’m greatly looking forward to the challenge of starting a new project and to contributing back to the community.”
Through the project the Gisda team hope to liaise with local company officers and employers and to encourage them to support vulnerable young people through activities such as government backed KickStart projects, apprenticeships and training programmes.
The scheme will also encourage young people to take up volunteering opportunities and further education.
There is sufficient funding for the project until spring 2021 but Gisda is working on securing further finance to extend it long term.
It eventually hopes to recruit young people who have received help from Gisda in the past to act as employed peer mentors for those currently turning to Gisda for help.