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The boss who's changing the lives of homeless young people

PUBLISHED: 06:00 14 August 2019

Chief Executive of the YMCA in Norfolk, Tim Sweeting. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

Chief Executive of the YMCA in Norfolk, Tim Sweeting. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

He was going to work in a bank but a stint volunteering for the YMCA changed his life forever. Caroline Culot spoke to Tim Sweeting, CEO of YMCA Norfolk.

Chief Executive of the YMCA in Norfolk, Tim Sweeting. Picture: Ella WilkinsonChief Executive of the YMCA in Norfolk, Tim Sweeting. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

Tim Sweeting is one of the most inspiring people you'll meet. He's an unassuming, quietly spoken man but what he says is so emotionally charged, so full of conviction, that it's incredibly humbling.

His life changed when he took a year out from university. "When I went back home to Bishop's Stortford I wanted to make a difference and so I worked with some young people who'd had a tough start in life and I absolutely loved it." We are sitting in the relaxation room in one of the YMCA's accommodation units, in All Saints Green but I can't write down what he's saying fast enough. It's compelling.

"I lived with some Christians at uni and there was something special about them, so I wanted to explore religion more and it made a massive difference to my life, it hasn't been the same since." Tim realised way back then that he wanted to help people as a job and he's now a regular church-goer at St Thomas' on Earlham road in the city.

YMCA Norfolk chief executive Tim Sweeting at a special charity evening. Pic: Julia HollandYMCA Norfolk chief executive Tim Sweeting at a special charity evening. Pic: Julia Holland

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He came, as he described, from a working class family; his father worked at Stansted airport for an aircraft parts manufacturer and his mum in an office.

"I came from a loving family," he added. "It's a good thing to have an upbringing that allows you to see the best of the world."

The YMCA staff at the Central Norwich Facility, All Saints Green. From left to right: Tegan Whitehair-Paulin, Sarah Caston, Tim Sweeting, Ruby Barrett, Angela Thornton and Julie Brown. Picture: Ella WilkinsonThe YMCA staff at the Central Norwich Facility, All Saints Green. From left to right: Tegan Whitehair-Paulin, Sarah Caston, Tim Sweeting, Ruby Barrett, Angela Thornton and Julie Brown. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

But it was his first paid job with the YMCA in London that made him see the very worst. His first role was as a support worker in Walthamstow, north east of the capital in a 50-bedroom direct access facility which he described as being "very much at the sharp end of homelessness."

"We were dealing with people who had come from war-torn areas as well as people in London who were homeless. The key is knowing you're making a difference on a day-to-day basis, that carries you through that you're in the right place with the right skills, that you can make a difference to people at their lowest end and see the transformation in their lives.

"They weren't always good news stories, there were some difficulties, violence, different situations where you felt genuinely scared. Fights involving knife crime was a day-to-day situation. I've been threatened, one time I can remember being with someone who was about to pick up a coffee table and bring it down on me. I was able to talk him out of it.

"Another very difficult experience was when someone had thrown themselves out of an eighth-floor storey window. He lived but was paralysed.

"It's where there is an absence of hope in someone's life, where the situation is so overwhelming that suicide, the biggest killer of young men, is something they turn to.

"Those kinds of experiences are not generally something we have in Norfolk."

Tim, who is married with two children, 12 and nine, has received the correct training to be able to deal emotionally with such harrowing experiences.

"It is very easy to burn out in caring roles but there is an induction training programme you go through to enable you to cope, you need to be caring enough but not so much that 'friendly' turns into being a friend. We offer counselling and supervision to all of our staff, every member is trained in mental health first aid to ensure they are equipped with the necessary skills, coping mechanisms and emotional resilience.

"We're not here to be young people's parents, we are here to walk alongside them, to help them make an informed decision about their own lives so if we build any kind of dependence in young people, when they move on from us, then they are not able to live the life they'd like to.

"It's about walking alongside them while they decide the kind of people they want to be, to manage their dreams, tell them they are not defined by their pasts, but they have huge potential. It's about equalising their opportunities, that's what we want for all our children, the right to a better future, not just to go into the first dead-end job that comes along."

Tim spent a decade working for the YMCA in London and 17 years ago took on the role of a trustee which gave him skills to take on the job of CEO in Norfolk 10 years ago. He's managing a £4m turnover and 120 staff and resource is always an issue - YMCA Norfolk receives no national funding but acts as a local, separately run charity. Last year it housed 445 young people across Norfolk but had to turn away 200.

"These young people don't have hope for their futures, things like drugs and drink are how they deal with their problems but are not the root cause, our number one job is to help them see the fantastic strengths they have, to have hope. They may have been told over and over that they're not good enough. My dream is to provide a place where all young people have the ability to belong and reach their full potential, where the YMCA isn't just where you go in a crisis but where you go for fantastic opportunities."

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