Children are in the news for all the right reasons thanks to a week long celebration of youth called Chesterfest. BARRY ELLAMS reports
A Time Magazine article prompted an urgent national debate on Britain’s youth with a damning profile of a society running scared of its lawless teenaged hoodlums.
The Mean Streets article in the American journal depicted the UKs ‘idle’ teenagers as unsocialised and hard-faced yobs prone to violence and alcohol, wallowing in negative publicity.
There is already a bleak perception that every city is crawling with gangs of children shunning leadership and guidance darkly amused by illegal forms of entertainment.
With politicians talking of a ‘broken society’ there is a growing danger of creating an unnecessary social divide by stereotyping all youngsters as tearaways.
While Chester also has its youth crime issues they are far outweighed by the well recruited youth organisations such as Scouts, Girl Guides, Cadets and First Aiders that are working for the good of the community.
This week a church organised army of youngsters in red T-shirts are sweeping through Chester spreading honest old fashioned messages of support, trust and friendship into the community.
More than 140 youngsters taking part in this year’s Chesterfest are living proof young people should be celebrated and not reviled by picking up litter, washing cars, polishing shoes, painting fences and chatting to people.
Community Acts of Kindness Experience CAKE are more than crumbs of comfort for unsuspecting passersby. It has become a valuable bridge building exercise which in turn gives children essential life skills.
Children have visited elderly residents in Lightfoot Lodge, Florence Grogan House and Kings Court and got them singing songs like Long Way to Tipperary and painting murals in Chester’s subways.
Chesterfest is organised by 23 church groups including All Saints Hoole, Caldy Valley Neighbourhood Church, Chester Cathedral, Christchurch Newtown, Hamilton Street Methodist Hoole, Holy Ascension Upton, Hoole Baptist Church, Kingsway Chapel Newton, Matthew Henry Evangelical Church Blacon and Storehouse Tarporley
Chesterfest co-ordinator Deri Fabien explained: “Chesterfest is an amalgam of all the church districts and breaks down denomination barriers.”
The week long event which culminates in a major festival at Hoole Coronation Playing Fields attended by 9,000 people is designed to cement a feel-good factor in the city and break down age and social barriers.
Chairman of Chesterfest, Reverend Andy Glover explained: “Chester is a small enough city for everyone to know each other but everyone is busy and sometimes people struggle to know how to put something back into the community.
“It is grass roots in that it gets people talking to each other again young people talking to old people and taking an interest in their lives. People tell me it’s how it used to be in the old days.”
Chesterfest has spread its wings in the city starting out in 1997 from Funday on a Sunday in the closely knit suburb of Hoole to a pioneering city-wide credit crunch busting initiative with gestures of goodwill and acts of charity taking place in shops, subways, cafe’s and on the streets.
Revd Glover explained: “We are calling the world’s first never ending festival there are lots of activities going on all the time including Community Acts of Kindness Experience CAKE.
“It amounts to 4,000 hours of kindness for free putting something back into the community. Everything is free – people are a little taken aback at first when they are told they can have a free drink or can have their cars washed.”
Co-ordinator Paul North explained: “It’s a real atmosphere changer. It builds trust, gets everyone in a conversation so different from the culture of ‘I don’t want to talk to you’.
“What is exciting and thoroughly rewarding about this is that young people really look forward to Chesterfest. They are really up for it they are not being dragged kicking and screaming into taking part. They are keen and engaged in the spirit of the event and are willing to invest their time.
“Every high school in Chester is represented. We have got 72 leaders working alongside 140 kids.
Wendy Swan, who has been a youth leader for four years explained: “It’s about giving young people confidence and motivation Chesterfest fills them with a sense of self love and care for the community.” “After a week you feel physically tired but really built up.”
For Revd Glover Chesterfest is also about the church going back to basics at a time when religion and children have become politically loaded controversies courting unpleasant headlines.
He added: “We are trying to communicate that there is quite a different side to what people think of the church – we play a revitalising role.”