Step Forward – supporting disadvantaged young people to thrive

This month we are pleased to shine our community spotlight on Step Forward, an independent charity based in Tower Hamlets, providing a unique blend of counselling and personal development support services for young people aged 11-25 years. They aim to attract and support young people who are facing poverty and disadvantage and enable them to thrive, develop, grow and reach their full potential in life.

Tower Hamlets is one of the most deprived areas in England, has the worst housing in the country and the 3rd highest level of child poverty. It also has a vibrant, multi-cultural community that is demographically diverse, where 75% of young people are from black and minority ethnic communities, and an unusually young population, with the 2nd highest proportion of under 18s in Western Europe.

We caught up with Lee-Xuan Robinson, Step Forward’s Operations Manager, to learn more about the charity’s important work in Tower Hamlets.


What does Step Forward do?
We support young people who may come to us with a range of presenting issues, including low self-esteem and confidence; anxiety and depression; loss and bereavement; trauma; sexual violence and abuse; identity issues; sexuality and gender; cultural issues; difficulties with education; and family and relationship issues.

Young people have often borne the brunt of both the socio-economic and mental health impacts of the pandemic and the levels of destitution are predicted to rise. We have already seen a rise in both numbers of referrals, as well as increased complexity of young people seeking support.

What are the challenges that its service users face? How has this been affected by the pandemic?
Over the last 18 months the young people we support have been living through unprecedented times – where restrictions on individual’s freedoms were imposed, eased and, in some cases, re-imposed again.

During lockdown, some young LGBTQ people who may not be ‘out’ to their families have also struggled to find the space to be able to safely access our remote group. Furthermore, due to overcrowded living conditions, young people have had difficulties finding the appropriate space to access our support. However in these situations, staff and young people have found ways to ensure support was possible. We have seen at first hand the impact that this continued and prolonged period of uncertainty has continued to have on young peoples’ mental and emotional health.

How does Step Forward’s work help users overcome these challenges?
Step Forward offers a safe welcoming space for young people to get support for whatever is on their mind.  All our services are free and confidential and aim to minimise the barriers that young people may face in accessing support.

We provide young people with a confidential and non-judgemental safe space. We tailor our approach to meet their individual and specific needs. Young people can benefit from the skills and experience of our multidisciplinary team of Youth Development & Wellbeing workers, Counsellors and CBT Practitioners. By doing this we ensure that we always provide young people with high quality support which is for them and about them.

One of the key elements of our counselling and wellbeing support during the Pandemic has been to offer young people coping strategies to deal with anxieties that emerged as the situation unfolded and evolved. For example: dealing with the ‘disconnect’ & interruption to young peoples’ studies brought about by the need to self-isolate.

Do you have an inspirational story that you would like to share?
Step Forward was able to provide one-to-one counselling to a 21-year-old who connected with the service via Zoom whilst sitting in his car. This was the only private space he could find as his family were all at home due to the Covid-19 restrictions. This highlighted how much the young person valued the support that Step Forward was able to provide & it demonstrated the strong commitment that he has to his own therapy.

Some quotes form young people:

  • “Thank you for being so patient and listening to me. It’s really difficult talking about stuff that I have never said out loud before, but I do feel a lot lighter after our weekly sessions” (Female, aged 14 years)
  • “Our weekly (telephone session) has been so important to and for me. I have been at home, with my family for the last three months, and during this time you have been my only real contact with the outside world.” (This YP has additional health needs. He has an EHCP and has been shielding). (Male, 15 years)
  • ‘I really like the vibe at Step Forward. It is the organisation that I trust the most. I am glad that you are able to support me through this really difficult time.’ (Male, 18 years)
  • “I would say that Step Forward helps you challenge yourself in an environment that goes at your pace and comfortability. It’s not forceful in the sense that they demand you change your mindset but rather they coax you into feeling safe enough to explore other ‘what ifs’ in a gradual and steady way. The empathy and compassion given by the workers to you makes you reflect heavily and gives you and insight that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen.” (Female, 19 years)

What kind of support are you in need of right now and how might volunteering fit into that?
As a small charity Step Forward is always in need of financial support, however there are other ways that volunteers could also support us including:

  • CV support for young people as well as providing them with help to gain transferable skills for work
  • Hearing from people who may be interested in joining our Board of Trustees
  • Fundraising support (e.g. taking part in events/gaining sponsorship etc.)
  • Helping to leverage gifts in kind (e.g. art supplies for young people to use who may not be able to afford them)
  • Helping to raise awareness of Step Forward and the work we do
  • Potentially helping with our holiday programmes and activities where relevant or being guest speakers at our LGBTQ+ group
  • Help with getting our very neglected small garden space back to being usable

What are your hopes for 2021 as an organisation?
Our hope is for us to be able to continue to grow, develop and respond to the needs and wants of local young people. We want to ensure they get the support they need, when they need it and in a way which helps them to achieve the outcomes that they want.

We aim to use our learning and experience of having developed new ways of supporting young people during the pandemic to develop an evolving hybrid model of support for them going forwards. As a continually growing and evolving organisation with a creative and dynamic staff team, we also hope to offer more group activities and look at ways to reduce waiting times for our support.

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