A North-East charity has warned that its services are in greater demand than ever due to the loss of thousands of jobs, followed by the pandemic, and now the cost of living crisis. PETER BARRON reports

ACROSS the windswept beach, to the rusting remains of the blast furnace at the soon-to-be flattened Redcar steelworks, the dark clouds are gathering above Beth Major’s head.

It is a symbolic backdrop for the pitman’s daughter, who has become the leader of a charity where a range of vital services for young people come together.

“We're facing a perfect storm,” says the chief executive of The Junction Foundation, which is based in Station Road, a short walk from Redcar’s promenade.

Six years have passed in a blur since the local steelworks shut down, with the devastating loss of around 2,000 jobs. Since then, the local economy has had another battering from the Covid-19 pandemic, and now the cost of living crisis is inevitably adding to the hardship.

“The number of people living in poverty around here has gone up massively, and I can only see it getting worse as the year goes on,” says Beth. “So much has changed, and the impact on the mental health of young people and young carers has been terrible.”

The Junction Foundation was founded by volunteers 31 years ago and was originally called OK For Youth. Today, it is much more than the drop-in centre it was originally intended to be and, in the four years since Beth took over as chief executive, it has expanded significantly.

The charity helps young people up to the age of 25, along with their families, mainly in Redcar and Middlesbrough. An increasing suite of services include support for young carers, mental health, physical health, emotional wellbeing, reducing isolation, and tackling youth unemployment.

Beth was raised 40 miles up the coast, a descendant of three generations of pitmen. Her dad, Ray, was a miner at Horden Colliery before he joined the Mine Rescue station at Houghton-le-Spring. It was a job that came with a bungalow for his family: wife, Diane, and daughters Beth and Abi.

“We had bells that went off in the bungalow to tell us when they were changing shifts down the pit, and for when there was an emergency,” she recalls.

Growing up in the 80s, during Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, Beth’s childhood was spent against the backdrop of frequent strikes, bitterness and hardship.

“The shipyards at Sunderland were closing too, so I saw my peer group living in poverty all around me,” she says.

“We were relatively OK because of my dad’s job in Mine Rescue – we didn’t have a lot, but most people had nowt.

“I think that experience definitely left a lasting impression because it made me realise how fickle life is.”

Beth initially rejected the idea of going to college and university. Instead, she got an admin job with a local solicitor, but hated it and credits a youth worker with persuading her to change direction.

“I called in at the YMCA in Houghton-le-Spring on my way home from work one day, had a conversation, and he gently made me realise that I could do more with my life,” she says.

She was also inspired by her mother, who decided to go to university late in life to pursue a career in youth work.

Beth followed a similar path, studying youth community work at Durham University, and investing a lot of time in volunteering. After graduating, she had two part-time jobs: one as a youth worker and the other as a play development worker. She was responsible for setting up an after-school club at Spennymoor, and, by the time she was 22, she was already in her first managerial role.

She managed Auckland Youth and Community Centre, on Bishop Auckland’s Woodhouse Close estate, before embarking on youth development work in Ferryhill, where she set up the Town Council’s pioneering youth programme.

She was later employed by Durham County Council as a senior youth worker at Chester-le-Street, before spending 10 years in Hartlepool as Deputy Head of Youth Service, then Youth Work Manager.

When the time came for a new challenge and she applied for the chief executive’s job at The Junction Foundation, she wasn’t 100 per cent convinced she wanted the job. However, part of the selection process was being interviewed by a group of young people who were using the services, and they sold it to her.

“I could see the golden thread – how people behind the scenes at the charity were knitting together the support packages for the young people who needed them,” she explains.

One of those she spoke to was a girl who had been a young carer. She talked about how her mental health had suffered when the person she was caring for deteriorated and died. The Junction Foundation supported her through that difficult period, then helped her find a job when she reached 18.

“It was a good example of how vulnerable people need a range of support, and how The Junction Foundation stops them being lost in the system. It’s where all the different threads of support come together,” she adds.

And the charity continues to weave in new threads as the demand grows. Clinical level therapy is now on offer, along with extended mental health and wellbeing support. A new South Tees Young Carers Service is being rolled out this month, while direct delivery of street-based youth work is being expanded into Hemlington later this year.

At Christmas, hampers and toys were distributed to families, and days out were arranged for young carers. This Easter, family activities were arranged in local parks, and Easter Eggs were delivered to children who would otherwise have gone without.

Beth now leads 85 support workers, and the fact that the team has doubled over the past four years shows the depth of the need on Teesside.

“We know the demand is growing all the time, and the key is being non-judgmental – because you have to remember you're only ever two or three steps away from needing help yourself,” she says.

It may be a different type of rescue service from the one she knew as a child, but the miner’s daughter is still responding to alarm bells.