Norwich young people’s champion Elli Chapman believes everyone can make something of themselves
Elli Chapman had a traumatic teenage life and also had to deal with a debilitating disability, but it has made her ideally qualified to work with youngsters as artistic director of Culture Works East. She set up the youth arts company in Norwich in 2009 with the aim of enabling young people to reach their full potential in all aspects of their lives.
Her own life unravelled as a teenager and she left school at 14 without GCSEs, ended up in social care, and was pregnant at 16.
And all the time she had to deal with a disability – hypermobility syndrome – that makes it hard for her even to walk without pain, and means she has dislocated her knees hundreds of times and is a regular at the A&E department.
She said: 'Up to the age of 19 I did everything that teachers tell you not to. I spent some of my teenage years living in social care, and was a young offender. Teenage life was very difficult for me, knowing who I was, and what I wanted to do. But if I had not gone through that life experience, which was positive as well as negative, no way would I be doing the job I am now.'
Her disability, hypermobility syndrome, which in layman's terms means she's double-jointed, is common in pre-pubescent girls, and means she's really bendy, and she has had 14 operations.
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Luckily, the leading specialist in hypermobility, Professor Simon Donell, is based at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.
She said: 'In some ways it's driven what I do and made me more determined. It has never stopped me doing anything. I have dislocated my knees hundreds of times. It will never go away, and it won't get better, so I just have to make it manageable. I try not to let it affect my daily life, but it makes it difficult to plan things, as I can go from being able to dance to being on crutches and in a wheelchair very quickly.
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'But I won't be trying bungee jumping. I enjoying swimming but running and walking, I'm quite often in pain. But everybody has their own challenge to deal with and this is mine. It's not a very well known condition, so it's hard for people to understand. 'It's genetic, my auntie was a dancer who had to stop because of it, and my brother had to give up running.' She first realised she had the syndrome when she dislocated her knee as a youth leader with the St John Ambulance in Yorkshire, aged about 11, but she did not get it diagnosed until she was 19.
Born in London, she moved to York aged five and ended up in foster care as a teenager, having her first child when she was 17.
She added: 'But I was lucky in that I had people that believed in me. I did some volunteering in the arts, went back to education, got my A-levels, and then a diploma in criminology and social policy through the Open University.'
She began her career in a dedicated youth arts venue in Lancashire as part of a community music organisation, and moved to Norwich where her stepfather is from. 'I have always said up north is home, but I've been here 15 years now,' she said.
She worked for Norwich Union Direct, mainly, she said, to build up a social network of friends, as she wanted to engage with hard-to-reach young people. Then she worked on the radio for the East of England ambulance service before getting a job as youth music worker for Rural Arts East, now Creative Arts East, for five years. She is now on the board of directors with Creative Arts East.
She was mentored by Nicky Stainton and was youth arts development officer when she left. 'Nicky taught me a lot about the arts and about Norfolk and I did a lot of work in rural communities.'
She then went freelance and moved to The Garage, working as regional coordinator for the Arts Award in the eastern region.
'My job was to embed that new award across the east of England,' she said.
A classically trained opera singer, she trained with Michael De Costa, and toured across the country singing the high notes with an Elvis tribute band. She also enjoys cooking.
She said: 'In my job I work incredibly hard, sometimes doing 14 to 15 hour days, but you have to with your own business.
'I have to manage it around my knees. I do a lot of work from my bed, if I need to. But I believe that no matter what you have experienced in life, with hard work and the right support you can make something of yourself.
'Having had the experiences I have had, it's hard for young people to look at me and then say it's not possible to achieve things. If you expect a lot from young people, then they aim for that bar.'
Her mother Pat Chapman works for Culture Works East as a progression coach, and her two children have also helped out at the independent family business, which is based at the Open youth venue in Bank Plain.
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