Alison Denny

Ali Denny works for Venture Scotland, an Edinburgh-based charity that harnesses the power of the outdoors to help troubled young people make a lasting, positive change to their lives.

What does Venture Scotland do exactly?

We offer opportunities for disadvantaged young people for whom other interventions have not worked or who have not been able to access such support.  At its core, our programme offers personal development, using the outdoors as a vehicle to engage young people.

Who participates in your programme?

Our participants are aged between 16-30 and all face challenges in their lives.  It could be that they have been in care and have come out and are now homeless; some have misused drugs or alcohol; while others have mental health problems or are carers themselves, looking after siblings or parents.  We help them to discover their potential.

How many young people do you work with?

We work with around 100 young people each year.  Not all complete the full 12-month programme on offer; sometimes it’s just a short contact – maybe just a weekend – while others stay the whole year.  It’s up to them whether they take up the challenges we set them.  We keep choice at the heart of what we do.

What is it that you teach participants?

The backgrounds (of the participants) are broad and their problems are varied, but we find an effective way to focus on crucial things such as confidence and self-esteem.  We equip them with new skills and help them rediscover old ones.

How important are actual outdoor activities in this?

Our programme includes learning practical skills such as navigation, hill walking and canoeing, but we also work on the softer skills such as leadership and communication.  Quite a few of our participants go onto work in the outdoors, but all enjoy the learning and the group development.

What is it about the wild and the outdoors that is so stimulating for participants?

We put people into an environment that is challenging, but one in which they can still feel safe and secure.  It’s about moving away from the negative influences experienced in their home communities.

Much of the residential work takes place at a bothy in Glen Etive.  Why does that work so well?

There is simplicity about life at the bothy – they can ship of a lot of their baggage.  For some, it can be nerve-wracking to start with, with fear manifesting itself in many different ways.  But our staff are very competent and experienced professionals and work towards making all our young people feel comfortable and safe in the bothy environment.  People don’t learn if they are worried or nervous.

What is the bothy like?

The building sleeps up to 20 people and has a wood-burning stove, piped water from the burn and a flushing toilet.  We pay a nominal rent (to the local estate) for exclusive use and in return maintain and develop the bothy site.  Having exclusive use has enabled us to incorporate bothy-developments into the programme and create a real sense of ownership.  It’s also fantastic for conservation activities.

Tell me about the volunteers who work with you and the value they bring

We are unique amongst contemporary organisations in our emphasis on volunteers.  We have over 150 volunteers who come from all walks of life: they range from lawyers and accountants to people who work in outdoor activities and conservation.  While some have done youth work before, most have no formal qualifications for this kind of work other than a love of the outdoors.

What personal attributes do staff and volunteers need for this kind of work?

Passion, patience, a love of the outdoors and, of course, a desire to work with young people.  It’s hard work when you are cold, it’s dark, wet and you want your supper – we need people who can remain enthusiastic though such challenges.

What drew you to this job?

The ethos is similar to that of Raleigh International where I worked previously in Chile.  I’ve experienced at first hand just how powerful and positive the outdoor environment can be for young people.

What do you find most satisfying about the work?

Every six months we have an awards evening where participants who have completed our programme give a presentation about what it has meant to them.  Seeing and hearing their stories reminds me of the incredible difference we are able to make to their lives.  At the last awards evening, one participant summed it up perfectly: he said that we provide opportunities for young people who are losing their future.

 

Venture Scotland works with young people from across the central belt.  While its programme is run out of two centres in Edinburgh and Glasgow, the main residential base is a bothy in the wilds of Glen Etive.  For much more on Venture Scotland’s work, including volunteering, visit www.venturescotland.org.uk

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