“Prevention is about positive engagement”

Mentor UK's Gez Lawson talks about what prevention means in community programmes for young people

3 April 2019 | News

Edinburgh

Gez’s life experiences have been the driving force for his work. He began as a youth worker and is now Head of Community Programmes at Mentor UK. Gez knows how vital intervention and prevention work can be for vulnerable young people. As he puts it, “When I was a teenager I got into a spiral, and maybe if I had the right intervention that could have been avoided. So I guess like most young people who had been in care, I wanted to be better than the people who dealt with me – not all of them were bad but that was my original motivation.”

Gez Lawson, Head of Community Programmes

Gez’s expertise is in peer education, which translates into training young people to empower themselves and others by having knowledge of the risks and harms related to alcohol and other drugs. The challenge is firstly convincing young people to volunteer their time to join the programme. Creating a trusting environment where they can feel at ease speaking in a group and working together is essential. Gez has developed these programmes in a way that resonates with young people, and is a different learning experience to what they’re used to in a classroom. After they have completed their sessions, they are then ready to pass on facts and advice to those of a similar age. The peer educator may pass this on in scheduled sessions at a youth centre, or as Gez pointed out, just sharing the information in their community is still a positive outcome.

The word community can mean different things to different people but for Gez it is local service providers, volunteers, police officers, shopkeepers, faith leaders – all of whom are part of his web of contacts he has developed in the southwest of Edinburgh. It is through this network he can provide provisions and support for the peer programmes. Gez says, “It’s about being a part of the right platforms, the right forums, and then utilising those networks to achieve what you want” and as it turns out, preventing young people from underage drinking is what the community want also.

Gez has been running the prevention programme the Bottle Project since 2015, a 12-week series of workshops for 15-21 year-olds in the Oxgangs area. Once they have completed the programme they are supported to deliver a six-week alcohol and health intervention to young people aged 14-17. The aim is to build confidence, develop group-work and communication skills, and improving knowledge around alcohol-related risk-taking behaviour. As Gez says, “The Bottle Project is about engaging young people into something positive. It doesn’t matter that we are talking about alcohol or discussing life-skills, it’s about them coming into contact with positive people, people who care about them and giving them the opportunity to do something. Giving them a chance to succeed. I’ve worked with young people who were homeless, and they come along because they get free pizza, but then they start to evolve into feeling a part of something, and actually get to have ownership of something.”

Intuitively Gez always saw the value of peer education long before it was even proven to be an effective method in alcohol and drug prevention. Gez says, “Back in those days evidence-based stuff was not on my agenda. Whereas now all we do is evidence based, we know what works. When I was a youth worker working in project development, I cared about young people themselves, the individuals and I still do but now it’s more about the bigger picture – policy, framework – you see that’s how it changes things for the better.”

In the next few months Mentor UK is going to start looking at the meaning behind the word “prevention” and what it translates to in the real world. Framing this to Gez he says, “Ninety-percent of prevention is about alcohol. Most young people make poor choices under the influence of alcohol, like taking drugs or having unsafe sex. Prevention is about positive engagement. If you can engage with your peers and adults in a positive way, you are less likely to get involved with drugs, you are more likely to have trusting relationships. It’s an orchestrated community group but young people in the past have said “I would never have met someone like you” they are able to be around a mixture of kids, middle class and working class, and they’re able to become less judgemental. It’s about creating those opportunities, and then being trusted, you’re given responsibility. If your environment is terrible this is an opportunity to have early intervention. They are then getting the messages out there to other young people, dispelling myths, and they learn from each other better, so then the quality of information that gets out there is better, and then hopefully, the better they’ll be.”