Safe haven on the road to independence

Students with learning difficulties now have a new 'safe haven' as part of a transport project aiming to give them the confidence to lead independent lives. Rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports.

It might seem like second nature to most of us. But for many students with learning difficulties, hopping on the bus to college can be a daunting and confusing task.

The alternative is to rely on dedicated taxis – a costly alternative which restricts the youngsters' transport options and constrains their ability to integrate with social groups.

But, with the public-spirited help of some of Norfolk's largest employers, a growing travel scheme is overcoming these problems and helping teenagers on the road to true independence.

Norfolk County Council's Travel Independence Training Across the Nation (Titan) project has unveiled the Norwich offices of insurance broker Marsh in Queens Road as its second safe haven for young people with learning difficulties.

Last year, insurance giant Aviva became the first, offering its Surrey Street premises on the other side of the city's bus station as a recognisable place for the scheme's members to go if they got lost, felt anxious, or lost their bus pass or mobile phone.

Through Titan, the council employs a team of 'travel buddies' across the county who work with school-leavers during the summer holidays to build up their confidence on public transport until they are able to make the journey alone.

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But should anything go wrong, the project is also building a network of safe havens near transport hubs, where staff are trained to offer help to students in difficulty, or contact their families or colleges.

Since the project was launched in 2009, Titan has supported more than 450 students and saved taxpayers an estimated �4m in transport costs.

Those behind the scheme said not only does it open doors to education and employment opportunities – but it also gives teenagers the skills, experience and confidence which could be invaluable in later life.

Peter Walsh, who organises the Titan scheme in Norfolk, said: 'It gives young people the chance to be totally independent. It builds their self-esteem and increases their competency and confidence. It helps them access further eduction and work experience placements and eventually, we hope, a proper job and a social life.'

The scheme relies on 10 'travel buddies' working across the county, helping students with learning difficulties to get to colleges in places including Norwich, King's Lynn, Great Yarmouth and North Walsham.

During the summer, they work with the students to gradually build their confidence on public transport; first by travelling alongside them, then by dropping two seats back on a 'shadow journey' before finally sending them off on their own – safe in the knowledge that there is a welcoming place at the other end should anything go wrong.

One of them is Adam Curtis, a second-year law student at the UEA who is working as a mentor during his summer break.

'It stops the segregation you get from arriving in a taxi when everyone else is arriving by bus,' he said. 'This way, you get to meet people and make friends on the bus and at the bus stop.

'It is the small details like that make such a difference for these students, and once they have gained their independence they can go to the cinema or visit friends on their own.

'From our point of view, we always have to think that we are talking about sending disabled students into the wide world on a bus, while their parents might want to wrap them up in cotton wool. There are so many things that can go wrong which we cannot train them for, so this is the answer to those unknowns.

'The journey you go on with them is amazing. You start with a shy student who cannot leave the house, and you see them develop into someone who can travel on their own. Their parents are so grateful for that.'

Julie David, whose 20-year-old daughter Laura participated in the Titan scheme during the summer, said: 'We agreed to Laura joining the project straight away - anything that gives Laura the opportunity to be independent can only be a good thing. We're a very close family and do everything together but this gives Laura the opportunity to travel into Norwich to meet up with her friends, if she wants to. Titan is a brilliant project, and Laura has really enjoyed being involved in it.'

During working hours, trained staff at Marsh in Queens Road will be on hand to offer help students who arrive and show their membership wristband.

Andy Thomas, head of the construction division at the firm, said: 'It is a big building and there's plenty of places to bring these youngsters where they can have a cup of coffee, use the toilets or the telephones. It is really just helping out and doing something a bit more for the community. It gives something back and hopefully we can get more people involved as it progresses.'

Keith Fenwick, chief executive of Marsh's Norwich operations, said: 'We recognise we are a large employer in Norwich and Norfolk and we are trying to give something back to the community. We have got a great location to make this happen and our staff have been very positive. We are not all as lucky as the 1,000 people who work here, so it is good to be able to do something to provide a place where these young people can feel safe.'

Alison Thomas, cabinet member for children's services at Norfolk County Council, said: 'The Titan project has made a significant difference to hundreds of young people.

'I think one of the key points for me is the support that this can give people to help them gain independence. Once they have got the skills to travel into college, they can use those skills to travel into Norwich to visit friends or go to the cinema.

'This will mean vulnerable young people in Norfolk can continue to lead independent lives but know they have the added security and another safe place to go to seek sanctuary, should they have any concerns.'

-The Titan team is looking to recruit travel buddies to work on temporary paid contracts from late June to early September next year. Anyone interested should contact peter.walsh@norfolk.gov.uk by March 2013. Norfolk County Council is also looking for other 'safe place' partners to support the scheme.

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