A few Fridays ago, the shortlist for the National Diversity Awards was announced on social media, awards that until accidentally coming across on Twitter I hadn’t heard of. After reading through the award categories- I knew that there was one person who stood out from everyone I knew and I had to nominate her for an award. I nominated Valerie Ender for the life time achiever award, my youth worker as a teenager, who has had more impact on my life than anyone. I knew, that for all she’s done for young people across the borough of Gateshead, Valerie needed to be recognised. I wanted others to know about the valuable sanctuary that Gateshead Youth Council provides for young people, how important youth services are in general and how proud I am now to call Valerie a friend.
I first met Valerie when I joined Gateshead Youth Assembly, as a shy, timid fifteen year old- with incredibly low self esteem and an anxiety disorder that I didn’t have a name for yet. I was also in denial about being Dyspraxic and going through bouts of horrendous bullying, on top of trying to be a ‘normal’ teenager, and dealing with everyone telling me who I should or shouldn’t be. I was, at this time in my life very unsure of myself and the world around me. However the first time I met Valerie, her warm smile and words of encouragement immediately had a powerful affect on me, she saw past the barriers and through to a girl who desperately wanted to be included, valued and be accepted- so that I could participate. Everything finally started to make sense. She adopted a very caring and reassuring approach, offering an ear when I needed it, a gentle hug when things got too much or simply just a push in the right direction when I had to do something. She was always there, and Gateshead Youth Council became my second home- Valerie believed in me for one of the first times in my life, something very special for a girl with Dyspraxia who was constantly told that I wouldn’t be able to do things, or achieve academically. Whilst on a university trip, when I learned that our lecturers were going to irresponsibly force us into the middle of a riot in Paris- anyone with any common sense/understanding of Dyspraxia would understand how I felt at this point, my instinct was to give Valerie a call. She was sat at home, whilst I was in a hotel room across the channel, in floods of tears with worries about tear gas and French police. Her calm and reassuring approach made it all so much easier to deal with, despite looking back now and wondering how was that situation even allowed to carry on? Isn’t hindsight wonderful. From a different country, she was still able to reason and rationalise with me, to make a terrified Alice feel ten times better.
Valerie was different to everyone else who came before, she knew that I would get there and I was finally able to prove it when I travelled, with Valerie’s support to Slovakia after winning a writing competition. It was on this trip that I finally understood who I was for the first time, and through the tears, anxiety attacks and lack of vegetarian food- I blossomed. The one woman who has been instrumental in helping me achieve this has been Valerie Ender, coordinator of Gateshead Youth council and a brilliant youth worker and friend to everyone, who simply lets young people have a go, without being worried about being different, standing out or indeed getting it wrong. This seems miles away from the world many know at school. She really did make a difference to mine (and many others) lives and I wanted everyone to know this, so I nominated her for this award.
I am delighted that Valerie has reached the shortlist for these awards, and I am sure every young person or colleague she has ever worked with will join me in saying how much it means to them. The NDA’S are about equality, diversity and inclusion- and Valerie has really shown that this is at the heart of everything she does, by bringing young people from diverse backgrounds across Gateshead together. Diversity is the backbone to everything she did when I was a young person, and still does today- making reaching the shortlist for the life time achiever award even more special. She is one remarkable woman from Gateshead, who through her humble and passionate ways has done extraordinary and often life changing things for the young people she works with. When I got a place at University, Valerie was one of the first people I told- who seemed more over the moon than me at points, so you can probably imagine her reaction when I told her that I’d got into Durham to do a Masters. I was inspired so much by Valerie and my time spent in the Youth Council office, that I decided to study for an MA in Community and Youth work, so that I could encourage and support young people just as Valerie did for me. When I finally completed the MA, and it came around to graduating in the iconic Durham cathedral, Valerie was on the top of my list of people I wanted to be there, and I was honoured when she accepted my invitation.
I do everything I do now, because I joined Gateshead Youth assembly when I did, at a time in my life when I really needed to be accepted and understood. I am over the moon that my youth worker and friend, who was so instrumental in me becoming the young woman I am today, capable of standing up and taking the lead, with the confidence to support others in the same way as she did when I spent more time in the Youth Councils office than at home, has been shortlisted for this award.
Valerie writes: ‘I have been incredibly lucky to work in an amazing organisation for most of my adult life. I have worked with colleagues, parents, carers and most importantly young people who are amazing, inciteful, funny compassionate, confused, overwhelmed and absolutely bloody fantastic. What you should know though, is every decent Youth Worker out there would get nominations like this. I come from a profession of people who believe desperately that people are wonderful, some just need support to achieve their potential.’
The awards take place in September in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, and I am pleased to have been a small part of getting Gateshead represented but also to finally be able to show on a national level just how lucky Gateshead and the youth work profession is to have a woman like Valerie who has shaped the lives of so many. Everyone needs a Valerie in their lives.