Young people: There’s more than one way to slice a chilli

Today is World Youth Skills Day and this year’s theme shines a light on how we reimagine youth skills post-pandemic.

Grapevine has seen Covid’s effects on young people’s aspirations first-hand, those with disabilities feeling increasingly isolated and disconnected from their peers. So we’re sharing Curtis’ story of hope this World Youth Skills Day.

Curtis, a participant of Teenvine Plus, learns to fry chillies in the professional kitchen of a Coventry Mexican restaurant
Curtis at work in the kitchen

Curtis is 16. He is a young man with autism. The last year living through the pandemic has been an isolating and unsettling experience for him – during which his parents also decided to separate.

In the short spells back in on-site education at the Corley Centre school in Coventry, anger at his situation got the better of him and confrontations with staff were common. This turbulent year had left him frustrated, overwhelmed and unsure where to turn.

The start of 2021 inevitably saw focus shift to future plans, post-school. Sixth form or college? His preference was college because his friends were heading there.

“Curtis wanted to fit in and remain with people he knew. He believed that being a good friend meant always “backing someone up” and he often used his own money to buy things for others.”

Teenvine Plus gave Curtis the opportunity to explore the things he’s interested in. It began with one-on-one walks to the local Greggs and Starbucks where he could decide what he wanted to buy and spend money on himself with no peer pressure.

He found some solace in the kitchen at home too, helping to prepare ingredients for meals and snacks for the family. He told project worker Coleman he wanted to become a chef.

Teenvine had a connection to a local Coventry restaurant through another young person on the project. Run by the family, it offered an empathetic environment with people who understood some of the challenges faced by teenagers with learning disabilities and autism.

Meet the Teenvine team - photos of Paul, Sarah and Coleman smiling at the camera
(Left to right) Paul, Sarah and Coleman from Teenvine Plus and Teenvine Next Steps

So one Wednesday in Spring, spicy-food fan Curtis embarked on some informal weekly training in a professional kitchen. Accompanied initially by Coleman, he gradually learned how to make salsa, guacamole, burritos, enchiladas… if it was Mexican food, he made it! He took what he cooked home to his family. Curtis was experiencing his aspiration in real life and starting to believe it could happen one day.

There was tutoring on food preparation, kitchen hygiene – even frying chillies in a pan for the first time. Although nervous about being in a new environment, Curtis had the support of the family owners and his own parents. They had met and gotten to know each other.

Now Curtis goes every week, without Coleman. Unfortunately Covid put paid to the travel training Coleman would ordinarily have undertaken to get him to the restaurant independently but there is still scope for this in future.

Curtis has decided to stay on at sixth form and combine his studies with a work placement at the restaurant that has helped him to blossom. This may in turn lead to apprenticeships and a future career. It’s up to Curtis.

He’s also made two new close friends through Teenvine. They and their families have been bowling and picnicking together in recent times and are making more plans.

If Teenvine’s aims include independence and resilience, Curtis now embodies them perfectly. He is more focused and positive about his future than ever before. Teenvine has helped guide him through a difficult phase of his life with added skills for what’s next.

Naomi, Director of Projects, said: “At Grapevine, we see people and what they face as a whole. We meet them where they’re at and hear their issues, aspirations and ideas in places and spaces that matter to them.

“And alongside people we look up at the system through their eyes, for where it can bend and flex to work better for them. When people are strengthened by opportunity, ideas and inclusion there’s no limit to what they might achieve.”

Teenvine Plus is funded by BBC Children In Need and forms part of our Strengthening People action strand. Click here for more about Teenvine’s pandemic work.