Inspiring view of myself
I remember staring at a poster in biology class while at school. The image was of two people at the top of a mountain overlooking a beautiful scene. The statement at the bottom read: “Where you have been to, is not nearly as important as where you are going.” My fascination with it hadn’t gone unnoticed; the teacher saw me looking at it, took down the poster and said, “have it, Sharon. And know whatever you do, you will succeed, as you have the personality to take you anywhere”. I was in complete awe of Ms Mitchell and thought, wow – what a statement! Especially as a typing teacher a few days previous had told me that the only place good enough for me when I left school was the dole queue. I was 15 and about to leave school with no idea what I wanted to do.
Discovering youth work impact
I started going to a youth club aged 14 and can honestly say this access to an alternative education gave me the confidence and direction of travel I have been on ever since. I became an active volunteer for a peer-led youth organisation looking at issues such as drugs prevention and HIV/AIDS. I had amazing opportunities including travelling around Wales, Europe and the other parts of the world looking at different forms of drug prevention methods. At the age of 21, still with no idea what I wanted to do other than youth work, someone suggested I apply to attend college to get a youth and community qualification. I really didn’t think I could. I came from a working class family and no one else had been to college or university. Receiving the letter of acceptance is still one of the best feelings I have ever had.
Working with vulnerable young people
I knew I wanted to be a director of a children’s rights charity one day and work towards helping the most vulnerable young people in society. My first job was working with homeless young people, and I could see the connection between those who had been in the care system and those who ended up homeless. At the hostel, I would often talk with young people into the early hours while they would share their stories. I was always amazed by their resilience. My next job was working for The Children’s Society, setting up advocacy services for young people in care. It was not a statutory duty for councils at that time and influencing systems to promote the voices of young people was a real challenge. My next job was managing youth service provision across Cardiff – I remain a youth worker at heart!
Reaching the top of the mountain
I missed the advocacy world, so I applied for a job at children’s rights charity National Youth Advocacy Service as a project co-ordinator. Fast forward 15 years, and I am now its national executive director (Wales) – my dream really has come true. I am incredibly proud of the work that has been achieved during this time. Recently, I have been part of a campaign movement that has resulted in all young people entering care to receive an “active offer” to see an advocate. I have always been passionate about human rights and took up the position of vice-chair for Amnesty International UK last year, another achievement I am very proud of. I was also blown away to be informed that I had been awarded a Member of the British Empire in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list. I accepted on the grounds of promoting youth work, advocacy and human rights work.
TOP THREE CAREER TIPS
- It can be lonely as a director so find a support network. This can be as simple as having coffee with like-minded people. I have had some of the most inspiring thoughts during these catch ups.
- Change your thinking from, “why should itbe me?” to “why not me?”. Be brave and remember why you are doing what you do. I often think of all the young people I am representing to avoid any self-doubt.
- As a director, you often feel expected to know all the answers. Your team are the most important people around you and often know much more – believe in them, support them, and empower them.