Young People of the Year Awards: One dad's battle to change our paranoid perceptions of young people
It's a scenario familiar to us all. On your way home, you see a group of teenagers standing around on the pavement. They might be laughing, they might be fooling abut, they might just be lurking silently in each other's company.
What do you do? Walk through them, smile, even say 'Hello'? Or do you cross the street, avoid all eye contact and quicken your pace? For many of us – even those with teenagers of our own – we take the latter approach.
But why? Are young people really a threat? Do we really have anything to fear from them?
The answer, according to Tony Gearing, is overwhelmingly 'No'. But the fact that they we are wary, even afraid, of the younger generation is not because they are 'violent, binge-drinking, drug-taking hoodies': it's because they have been demonised by the media.
And for the last seven years, Tony – a 53-year-old father of four, including a daughter and a son who, at 20 and 17, fall into the 'young people' bracket – has been trying to change those perceptions by actively seeking out and rewarding the vast majority of 'ordinary' young people who do 'extrordinary' things to help, not threaten, their communities.
Tony is the founder of the Young People of the Year Awards (YOPEY, for short). As a former national newspaper journalist, he was fed up with the relentless 'unfair' negative press he saw kids the same age as his own receive.
So, supported by his colleagues in the Round Table in Royston, Hertfordshire, he recruited a team of freelance journalists to find the unsung heroes in the community.
He told Parentdish:
Everywhere you look nowadays young people are being condemned. It's almost as if every one of them is a binge-drinking, drug-taking, violent 'hoody' Yet there are many young people all over the country doing wonderful things for others. It's just that they live in the shadow of a well-publicised anti-social minority."
The people Yopey champions are aged 10 to 25 – the age group most criticised by society – who make life better for the people around them.
"We're about revealing, recognising and rewarding," Tony explained. "The community needs to reveal to us the young people doing good in those communities, whether it's fundraising, befriending the elderly, helping to run youth clubs, the community has to reveal to us what the young people in that area are doing.
"We then get the recognition for them. I have a team of freelance journalists who interview the ones I pick. We then push those stories out to the media and they get the recognition.
"This is not a competition where the winning is most important. It's about finding the most positive role models as possible.
"If your 12-year-old daughter organises a yard sale and raises £60, she won't win the competition. But if we can get her a mention in the local paper with a picture, praising her, I think it's a good bet that she will build on that."
Finally, with the help of sponsors, YOPEY rewards the very best, with cash prizes presented at lavish award ceremonies of anything up to £1,000, some of which often goes to the causes the young people have helped to support.
It has been a labour of love for Tony who says that even the highest and mightiest have an irrational fear of the young.
"There are plenty of adults who cross the road to avoid a group of teenagers, especially groups of boys," he said.
"I know a Chief Constable who came out of a house, saw a group of boys at the end of the road, then crossed the road to avoid them. It was only when she drew level with them that she realised two of them were her sons!
"Even Chief Constables get infected by the whole stereotype."
Last month, Tony was particularly incensed at a TV recruitment advert for the new Police Commissioners. The ad depicted seven 'crimes', six of which were being perpetrated by young people.
"Where was the professional burglar, the gang of adult armed robbers, the elderly paedophile, or the conman who is much more likely to be old than young?" Tony asked.
"I could list countless other crimes committed by adults – including MPs fiddling their expenses or journalists phone hacking – none of which featured in this unfair ad.
"While a small number of young people commit crimes, the majority do not and many who do soon get back on the straight and narrow - unlike Jimmy Savile."
He added: "I confess to being a 'villain' in my early teens. I remember me and my childhood mates smashing up an empty house. It was going to be demolished to make way for a new road. But it wasn't our property and it we were still trespassing and committing vandalism.
"The police caught us and sent us home to be told off by our mums. None of us became career criminals."
YOPEY has worked with police services for several years and Tony says is looking forward to working with the new Police and Crime Commissioners.
"We find young people doing good things in their communities, such as fundraising and running clubs that keep young people out of trouble, and set them up as positive role models for other young people to copy," he said.
"Our work also has the benefit of reducing the fear that the elderly has about young people because of the bad press and bad political statements like this TV ad."
His mission is to get adults to see young people as they really are and not as presented through media stereotypes. So what should you do if you see a group of teenage boys at the end of your road?
"I believe in not living your life paranoid," Tony said.
"Don't believe those negative headlines. Take care of yourself, of course: don't go up dark alleys on dark nights unless you really have to, but don't live your life thinking young people are a threat to you.
"The vast majority of young people are never going to be in trouble with the law. They are never going to do you any harm. Don't live your life fearing them."
TEN YOUNG PEOPLE TO BE PROUD OF
Some of the Yopey winners and runners-up who won prizes of up to £1,000 for their fantastic efforts
• Jack Elderfield, 17, from Amersham, Bucks, for his fund-raising efforts for the charity Street Kids Direct, which highlights the plight of kids truly at the bottom of the heap in Latin America.
• Ryan Jay, 17, from Ipswich, who helped to rebuild his community library and runs a youth club there that reduces anti-social behaviour.
• Former 'bit of a rogue' Billy Murkin, 17, from Thurston, Suffolk, helped to raise money for the charity that supported his disabled cousin when she was alive.
• Holly Watson, 17, from Sudbury, Suffolk, keeps alive murdered brother's memory with anti-knife campaign.
• Joe Dilley, 21, from Northampton, who volunteers as a youth project worker and saved a choking man's life with the Heimlich Maneouvre.
• Kristen Young and Dannielle Thorpe, both 16, from Rotherham, South Yorks, set up the 'Wybourn Gyals' club three years ago to stop girls hanging around on the streets of their estate. They wanted people in the community to see young people in a better light instead of stereotyping them as yobs or troublemakers.
• Student Lewis Tune, 17, from Nottingham, struggles with special needs and was once in care, but wants to spend his life helping others. Despite suffering from a rare genetic disorder similar to autism plus overcoming physical difficulties, Lewis always thinks about others.
• Katie Godfrey, 21, from Cambridge, raised £7,000 to build two classrooms for a poverty-stricken village in Kenya.
• Members of the Leigh-on-Sea Army Cadet Force who heard of the plight of an Essex teenager, taunted by others for having a disfigured hand. The 12-to-17-year-olds raised £10,000 to send the girl to Paris to have a new prosthetic half-hand fitted.
• Do you know a fantastic young person who deserves recognition?
YOPEY is open to young people aged from 10 to 25, who 'give to others'. They can enter themselves or be nominated as individuals or groups. Schools, colleges, youth organisations, churches, charities and other bodies that work with young people are encouraged to make nominations. If their nomination wins, they can receive half the prize money. Click geari to find out more.