Monday, June 08, 2015

Danny Flynn - he is Love with SKIN ON

A great interview with my friend and ex colleague Danny Flynn who is CEO of Stoke YMCA.
He is a man you would never forget once you met. Outgoing - passionate - loud - sensitive - man of faith -  loving ............. so much more
I say he is 

John Woodhouse meets... Hanley YMCA chief executive Danny Flynn

Danny Flynn was a diesel-fitter in Bucknall. He now wins national awards for running Hanley YMCA. 

He reveals how his own experiences gave him a natural empathy for those less fortunate...

"I DON'T care what you refer to me as," states Danny Flynn. 
"'Gob***** from Bucknall’, 
I'm not bothered.” 
'Chief executive of Hanley YMCA' will do fine, thanks Danny.

But the 50-year-old's self-moniker reveals an unorthodox man whose novel approach has turned the reputation of what was a much maligned YMCA around, to the extent it was recently named the best in the country.
"I came here," he says, "and I'll be honest, the reputation was poor. 
Grotty ****house at the top of Hanley where the naughty kids live. 
They were doing their best in the situation they were in – always skint, never any money.

"But I thought 'I need to do something'."
He pauses. "People laughed at me when I told them I was going to do this job."
Certainly, there were major questions to be asked. "Do we shut down? Do we get rid of the tower? Do we start again?"
But the basic human need of those using the facility would always be the overriding concern. 

"We had a 16-year-old who'd come here and she didn't even have a bedroom, she'd been living under a kitchen table. 
The reality of people from tough backgrounds," he explains, "is a big mess – it's broken relationships, it's family, it's lack of education.

"Throw in substance misuse, stick a bit of alcohol in, have some noisy neighbours, live in a really tough place, put on top of that everybody hates you – it's a difficult thing to shake off.

"That's what annoys me about this Government, that sadly it does matter where you're born, they just strip out all ways of social mobility.
"Count the amount of Olympic athletes who went to public school. 
Most people who run the country go to Oxford and Cambridge. 
If you come from a difficult background, you don't get in.
"So Mr Cameron says it's about hard work – and yes I agree on personal responsibility – but I do think there's got to be some recognition of the kind of structural inequalities that exist.

"If you're from somewhere tough in Stoke-on-Trent, your life chances are less than if you're born in Islington.”

Danny's vision to weigh in against such inbuilt prejudice was the creation of a 'youth campus’, 
not simply somewhere to stay, rather a place for the development and training of young people, a transition place from older childhood to young adulthood.

"It's the first in the country," he points out. 
"We're not trading in homelessness, we're trading in young people.
"I don't see this as a refuge or an escape," he continues. "I see it as a starting point. I see it as a development agency for young people, and the frustration is getting young people to see those life chances.”

This is a matter of which Danny has more than a little personal experience. He freely admits, directionless, he messed about at school.
"There was a lot of us," he reflects, "probably quite bright, but silly, and we all went into the trades. When I was 16 I was an apprentice diesel-fitter in Bucknall. I kept hassling the owner to send me to college. In the end he binned me off and made me redundant. I got a job in a body-spraying shop in Fenton. It was twice as horrible.”

Danny had challenges as a child, not least the death of his Baptist minister father, but he's not one to dwell on them.
"I didn't make the best of the opportunity," he reiterates, "and I'm not blaming anybody for that – you could say 'his dad died' and all that but that's just an excuse. Everybody has stuff to deal with in. Life isn't easy, is it? So we need to stop propagating this myth that it's this nice gravy train.”

Danny turned his prospects round with a couple of A-Levels and volunteering at a day centre for homeless people in London, "the classic underneath the arches stuff, keeping people alive basically – a massive eye-opener as a 19-year-old Stokie”.

Back in the city, and certain he wanted a role with people, he worked in a care home, and a night shelter, picking up invaluable know-how for when the YMCA job came his way, describing it as a 10-year journey to reach the current point where "we touch the lives of more than 2,000 people a week”.

Frustrating then that "people always concentrate back on the naughtiest ones", when the reality, he claims, is rather more benign.
"Some of the people who move on to Grace Crescent (the tenancy block) we never see – they're out there living their lives.”

So what are the consequences of misbehaviour? "If you bring the organisation into disrepute, or affect the lives of others negatively, we'll ask you to leave. If you want to sit around smoking dope all day, we'll ask you to leave.
"We're used to dealing with spits and spats. It's like schoolkids' playtime isn't it? Kids respond to things inappropriately because they don't know how to respond to them.”

Danny would rather see more appreciation of the kind of youngsters who come the YMCA's way. "People concentrate on the tough stuff," he says. "We've got 130 kids in the accommodation service. They might be kids where family or school hasn't worked so well, a stroppy 19-year-old who doesn't like her dad at the moment, it could be the kid from nothing.
"Conversely, we get some very spoiled kids who just need to get a grip, or kids who didn't stop partying. Most are sofa-surfing at their mates.

"Then there's another group who've had some really horrible things happen to them, really broken or damaged kids from horrible abuses, child sexual exploitation.”

Away from such horrors, labels must not be accrued unnecessarily. "Sometimes people over-egg the issue – 'I've got anger management issues', all this stuff. You get ones who say 'I can't sleep at night, I've got a sleep condition', and I say 'no you haven't, you're just bloody nocturnal! There's nothing wrong with you’.

"People reflect the professionals' language. Often things are used as excuses so people don't have to engage.
"You have to say to kids here 'if you don't go to bed, you can't go to work'. It's putting in normal discipline like that, like a normal mum or dad would do. All I can do is support people, to help them make a better choice.”

In another life, Danny could have been a politician, but one suspects he'd have been irritated by the constraints. Instead he makes his statements from a position of strength, built on human experience.
"The proposals to cut housing benefit for vulnerable young people," he rails against Government plans, "what do they want? Tripling, quadrupling, homelessness? That is what will happen.

"I'm concerned about the future because we're in a situation where we call people who are drowning in the Med economic migrants so we can forget about it. 
It's OK for middle-class rich people to travel around the world, completely free of any constraint, but when poor people do exactly the same – 'I want a better life' – they get called economic migrants and scroungers.

"Are humans," he asks, "as the Government seems to think, horrible Benefit Streety scroungers, or are they wonderful, imaginative, some of whom have been born in the wrong place to the wrong people?”

He cites criticism of the YMCA's Spar shop, the first in the country, for selling alcohol as an example. "If the Government is withdrawing from charities," he argues, "then we have to make it easy for corporations to help. As part of the campus, we live, we play, we work, we have some fun, we shop. So I provide a shop.
"The bonus is 12 jobs, engaging more with the community. Yes, there's a bit of controversy about selling alcohol, but it's not an off-licence, it's a grocers.

"We're dry in the building. We won't sell alcohol to people under 25, we won't be selling cheap rocket fuel booze. But actually I have a glass of wine with my tea, as you do, what's the problem?”

He draws comparisons with a similar application for a store in Longton. "Why is it controversial here where there's humans who need help?" he asks, "and not controversial in Longton where there's other humans who need help?
"It's seeing those letters 'YMCA' and attaching a negative image to them. 'Oh these terrible kids' and the rest of it. They're wonderful people made in the image of God, carrying a bit too much baggage, and our job is to help and do something good for them.”

When controversy does arise, he says, "the people who support us on Facebook are always the ex-customers who know".
Danny takes much of what comes his way with a large pinch of salt. "The older generation always thinks the world is going to hell in a handcart. It's not true.

"What I hope happens when people actually come in here is there's a bit of a wow factor – 'I thought it was a bit of a grotty ****house at the top of Hanley, I thought it was the horrible place where naughty kids live, and it's just a normal functioning place'.
"Let's just treat people as normal rather than 'special'. The only difference is they are young people who haven't had the love and support of a parent who has sustained them into the future. That's the only difference.”

And the difference with this YMCA? 

"Me. Off me head.”