Unique expression supports school children in Yorkshire
published on 8 Jun 2022
For Corps Officer Lieutenant Yvonne West, it is a privilege for her and inclusion unit manager Jo Wallace to be able to support school children as part of a unique expression of The Salvation Army in Wetherby, West Yorkshire.
Based within Wetherby High School, The Salvation Army (WSA) learning centre provides 20 lessons a week for pupils who struggle at GCSE level, as well as providing emotional and practical support to students and their families.
Operating from three buildings, former naval bunkers which were redeveloped by a former officer, they also offer Sunday worship and needs based support to struggling families and individuals.
Lt Yvonne, who has been based there for five years, said: “We teach up to six students, running an alternative curriculum offering BTEC lessons in subjects such as animal care, cooking and work skills for those who might struggle at GCSE level.
“We work with children with special educational needs (SEN); they could have ADHD, autism or dyslexia so they need a different way of learning. It’s our job to find a way of enabling them to reach their potential and ensure they leave school with academic qualifications so they can go on to apprenticeships or further study.
“The curriculum is designed by Jo in partnership with the school team. The way Jo teaches is very much one-to-one and sitting alongside the students. Learning often uses a multi-sensory approach, complemented by games, problem-solving tasks, therapies using art and lego, as well as animal-assisted activities.
“I also get involved in the work skills course, where we put them through a formal interview process so they know what it’s like in an interview situation for a job or college.
“We’ve journeyed with students their whole school life. I know some students who when I first met them couldn’t say hello or look me in the eye, but now when I do the interview training with them, they can sit and have a 15-minute interview with me.
“All of our children go on to do something, we know as they come back to tell us about it. When I first moved here and was looking for a hairdresser, no matter which I went to they would see the red shield and ask if I was connected to the WSA. My hairdresser now talks about how she struggled with school and the WSA helped her through it. She is one of our success stories and it’s lovely to be able to hear those.”
Describing it as real partnership with the school, Yvonne and Jo are on the staff team so attend meetings and training.
Also a mental health first aider, a key part of Yvonne’s day-to-day is providing one-to-one support to pupils if they are struggling.
She continued: “I have a couple of students who I see every week. It could be they are having family issues, or dealing with anxiety. I supported a year 11 with exam anxiety so that involved helping her plan her revision, walking her to the exam room and making sure she had what she needed.
“It’s like a stepping stone, a lot of pupils will be referred to CAMHS (children and adolescent mental health services), but there is an 18 month to two year waiting list so this is just putting some steps in place to make sure they don’t fall off while they are waiting, checking in with them and getting involved with home if we need to.
“The school has a coaching system, which rather than having form groups that take the register every day, each child is part of a group of 10 children, two from every year. It’s pastoral support with the idea that you create a little family with the older pupils able to support the younger ones.
“We meet three times a week and it’s a brilliant system because we can quickly identify if students are struggling or if there are issues with bullying, and feedback to the safeguarding or attendance teams. We really get to know these students.”
Yvonne opens the building for pupils of all faiths to pray during lunchtime and makes sure she is available at that time in case they need someone to talk to.
Alongside that, the day-to-day work of a Salvation Army Corps continues. Although the public cannot access the buildings on school grounds during the school day, people from the wider community can make an appointment to see Yvonne. During the week the corps is visible in the community, holding prayer meetings and friendship groups in local cafes and, on a Sunday morning, they meet for worship in the WSA classroom.
Yvonne works closely with the local food bank, sitting on the steering group and taking food donations there. She is also a referral agent and will provide emergency food parcels, as well as Christmas food parcels and gifts.
Yvonne said: “Our corps just helped a woman who was fleeing domestic violence and had been rehoused. She was starting from scratch so we were able to fund some bedding, kitchen and bathroom essentials and the food bank gave her food. We’ve also just had a referral to provide some mattresses for a family.”
Although Wetherby is a wealthy market town, there are pockets of deprivation and children from less wealthy areas in north Leeds travel to attend Wetherby High School.
“There is a lot of hidden poverty here and families that need assistance, so we work in partnership with the housing team and the children’s centre to identify them. A lot of the children at the school do not live in Wetherby but are connected to us through the school so we can help with requests such as food parcels,” Yvonne said.
The pupils know who The Salvation Army are as a church and charity and the importance of faith in Jo and Yvonne’s life.
She said: “The students know that both Jo and I are Christians. We have the red shield on all our doors and the words ‘love, peace, joy, self-control, gentleness, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and patience’ painted on the walls of the classroom, which opens up conversations. There are opportunities to talk about our faith, while being sensitive to the fact we’re in a school building.
“There is a school newsletter every two weeks, so I often write an article for them about the Christian response to something. Recently, I was interviewed by the school television channel for World Religion Day about what it means to be a Christian.”
Yvonne, who trained in chaplaincy in Salvation Army Lifehouses (supported accommodation for people who are homeless), added: “I see it as an incredible privilege to be able to do this. Especially with my coaching group, that’s 10 children I see every week. I approach it like I would ministering in a Lifehouse - that I’m in their space, I’m the visitor, but walking alongside them every day and having involvement in their lives. You walk through the joys and the sorrows with them every day, it’s an incredible ministry.”