A Duke of Edinburgh’s Award ambassador has told how he escaped a postcode war in his early teens by taking up the expeditions at his local youth club.
Thomas Richards, 27, said the scheme ‘saved my life’ as he grew up amid gang rivalries and suffered the loss of his mum while he was away on an outing.
Thomas, from Nunhead, Peckham, found a positive, life-changing focus at Westminster House Youth Club, where he first walked through the doors aged 13.
His mum, Delores, was a science teacher with a firm belief in education who wanted to keep her son away from gangs and drugs.
She pushed the teenager towards the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (DofE) at a time when a turf war was raging between gangs in Brixton and Peckham.
Delores died in 2009 and after almost giving up on the expeditions as he struggled to come to terms with his loss, Thomas would go on to fulfil her hopes for his future.
‘When I was younger Peckham had long been notorious for gangs, knife crime and drugs and there was an intense rivalry between the two boroughs,’ he said.
‘I was never involved but it was something you were aware of every day.
‘Especially fitting the demographic of a young Black boy from a certain area, it was pretty hard to avoid getting into confrontations, even when you were just going to school.
‘My mum knew this and she wanted me to be engaged with a youth club instead of essentially just hanging around on the streets.
‘She wanted me to make friends and be sociable in a fun environment.
‘I loved football and snooker and you could do basketball, indoor rowing, dodgeball and there were cooking sessions every week.
‘There were various awards and certificates you could complete, including the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.
‘I’d never heard of it before going to the club but my mum pushed me towards it. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be a life-changing experience for me.’
Delores, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, raised Thomas and his two older sisters on her own.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer as he began the awards and after an initial period of remission the disease came back and she died while he was away on his Silver Expedition.
‘At the time I was very upset and emotional,’ Thomas said.
‘I struggled to come to terms with it but my sisters, club managers and friends were very supportive.
‘I realised I had the potential to fulfil everything she wanted me to achieve and I didn’t want to let it all go to waste.
‘It pushed me to be the best I could be.’
Thomas went on to complete his gold, the final level achieved by candidates which includes an expedition and residential teamwork.
He also secured a BTEC in Sports and Exercise Science before completing food hygiene courses at college and university.
The father-of-one, who still lives in Peckham, now juggles helping out at his old youth club alongside his day job as a food safety officer.
As a DofE Diamond Ambassador, he regularly speaks to promote the charity, which has included a celebration at Buckingham Palace in 2014, as well as at Windsor Castle and St James’s Palace.
‘It sounds dramatic but in a way the awards saved my life,’ he said.
‘It’s not just about completing the awards, it’s the life journey going through bronze, silver and gold and learning different skills along the way.
‘On the expeditions there are days you want to give up but you know you have a goal to get to and you learn tolerance, confidence, team and independent and organisational skills to get there.
‘It’s led me to public speaking and engaging with fundraisers to get more support for the awards.
‘I believe young people need to have opportunities taking them out of their comfort zone. That’s what happened to me, as it’s not every day you go from Peckham to speaking at Buckingham Palace.
‘The awards made me push myself to the limit.
‘My message to other young people is to make the most of opportunities that they may never have thought about before.’
Thomas’s work is part of a winning story, with more than 320,000 young people starting their award in the last financial year.
The figure is up 10% on the previous 12 months and represents 3.5million hours of volunteering in communities across the UK.
Ruth Marvel, the awards’ chief executive, said: ‘Young people are taking up the DofE in record numbers – showing they value opportunities like this more than ever.
‘As they find themselves stuck between a brutal past few years and an uncertain future, chances to develop and grow outside the classroom are vital to help level the playing field and give them the skills and capabilities they need to succeed in future.
‘Young people need our support more than ever if they’re going to have the same chances previous generations had – which is why we’re determined to keep breaking down barriers to participation and reaching as many young people as possible.’
The Duke of Edinburgh welcomed gold award holders to Buckingham Palace on Monday and Friday in his first celebrations as the charity’s patron.
The two events recognised around 9,000 young people for their exceptional achievements while completing the scheme in schools, community groups, youth clubs and workplaces.
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