Sophia, YMCA Swansea – WINNER

Sophia Zahra first came to YMCA Swansea when she was 17 years old, during one of her lowest points in her life.

Home educated from the age of 12, Sophia became a young carer for her terminally ill mother. After her mother passed away, this event sparked a chain reaction of challenges in Sophia’s life.

Sophia joined YMCA Swansea’s gym in 2015 while solely caring for her grandmother alongside juggling studying for her A-Levels. She had developed a myriad of mental health problems as a result of experiencing social isolation and losing her mother, struggling for several years with anxiety, depression and an eating disorder.

The death of Sophia’s grandmother had a monumental effect and she failed her exams. Consequently, she found herself not only struggling with mental health issues but jobless and facing homelessness.

Sophia was referred to the Y-Engage Project. With a determination to achieve, she began a work placement on the Young Carers Project. She developed a passion to help and support the young carers, recognising many of their challenges. After her placement, Sophia secured employment at YMCA Swansea and finally completed her A-Levels

Her public speaking and passionate campaigning for mental health awareness have resulted in Sophia becoming an inspiration and a pioneering leader.

Michael, YMCA Thames Gateway – FINALIST

In 2008, aged just 17, Michael was struck down with an unknown virus that left him paralysed from the chest down and with severe visual difficulties.

Michael had to adjust to life in a wheelchair and in order to build up his upper body strength he joined YMCA Thames Gateway’s gym.

In 2012 Michael has life-changing surgery, which gave him some of his independence back. Recognising his true grit and determination, YMCA fitness staff recommended Michael pursue gym instructor training through InstructAbility, a bespoke programme designed to engage disabled people in the fitness industry. Discovering a passion for fitness, Michael overcame his physical limitations and qualified as a personal trainer.

Furthermore, Michael leads on para-sports activities for young people with disabilities and runs sessions, such as wheelchair basketball. And his fitness achievements don’t end there, as last year Michael participated in Parallel London – an inclusive 10k push around the Olympic Park.

Michael is a true advocate and supporter for the charity and in 2015 raised a staggering £1,146.75 by taking part in Sleep Easy.

He is now living independently and recently married Tracey, the love of his life.

George, YMCA Humber – FINALIST

When George moved to YMCA Humber’s Foyer project in 2015 he had a number of tough personal challenges to overcome.

However, motivated by his desire to join the army, George began attending the gym and took steps to tackle the issues he faced. He regularly got involved with Foyer activities and secured an apprenticeship as a youth worker.

Consequently, George’s life has changed dramatically. He has taken every opportunity offered to him, such as becoming a Youth Ambassador, honing invaluable skills to support his professional development. These include planning and organising a number of youth clubs, setting up events and running holiday activities.

An enthusiastic volunteer, George regular receives positive feedback from external partners and young people at YMCA. He has got involved with several projects, including YMCA Sleep Easy, Fruit-full Communities, among others.

George views working at YMCA as one of his greatest achievements, due to having first-hand experience of YMCA Humber’s supported accommodation. He said: “I have been given the opportunity to become one of the people who have helped change my life.”

In April George hit a milestone by moving into an independent property, impressively achieved while only on an apprentice wage.

Charlie, YMCA Bedfordshire

Charlie experienced a difficult childhood, with his only family connection being his grandmother, who moved overseas when he was 18. Charlie found himself homeless and dealing with the challenges that come with being a transgender young person.

Last November, Charlie became friends with people who did not have his welfare at heart and consequently Charlie wasn’t making the best decisions. He returned to YMCA Bedfordshire, and has since progressed.

Charlie understood that having a sense of purpose was important and secured a voluntary role at an animal charity shop. Since then, Charlie has remained focused and in January, Charlie began a Fitness Instructing CYQ Level 2 Certificate, a step towards his dream of establishing a career in this field. In addition, Charlie has also secured employment with a book keeper. He has accomplished all this in six months, with no family support.

Charlie’s achievements have all been gained while suffering from non-epileptic and convulsive seizures from a young age, which leave him feeling very unwell and fatigued, and he has also battled depression. However, he has worked hard to overcome his health problems and not allowed it to destroy his ambitions of his chosen career, and progression towards independent living.

Keelum, YMCA Coventry & Warwickshire

After a relationship breakdown with his mother, a prolonged period of ‘sofa surfing’ and with no qualifications or money to his name, life was tough for Keelum.

Wanting to go on a field trip with his college, Keelum was asked for a home address – something he could not provide. A teacher intervened and Keelum found himself at YMCA Coventry & Warwickshire.

Despite the challenges, Keelum didn’t let them prevent him from achieving his ambitions for a brighter future. He harnessed his love of the performing arts to set-up two companies to inspire, support and increase the confidence of local young people. The KWC Academy is focused on dance and KWC Entertainment on music, signing artists, providing mentoring and offering free studio time to build skills and confidence.

Keelum now attends college and having recently passed his first year of a performing arts course, he adapts the knowledge he has learnt to further build his companies. He is a committed volunteer, having been involved with a number of YMCA projects and is also a Youth Ambassador and member of YMCA Coventry & Warwickshire’s Youth Board.

Keelum lives at YMCA’s independent projects and aspires to follow his dream of performing worldwide.

Tapiwanshe, YMCA Manchester

Tapi moved to Croydon from Zimbabwe to when he was 12 and was confronted with barriers in language and cultural differences. He was bullied at school and consequently his behaviour deteriorated. He got involved with a group of older young people and started getting into trouble by fighting and stealing.

When Tapi was 13 he was moved into the first of three different care and foster homes where he was exposed to further criminal activity and drug taking. He was expelled from school at 14 and got caught up in a gang. Tapi decided to turn his life around at 15 and moved up to Salford.

Supported with an alternative curriculum, Tapi completed an Entry Level Functional Skills and a Level 1 Sport and Active Leisure Diploma with YMCA Manchester, alongside a personal development and employability programme with Prince’s Trust and a spray paint course.

Tapi now works as an apprentice at a garage doing a Level 2 Vehicle Maintenance and has ambitions to join the army as a mechanic when he is 18.

Tapi said: “It’s been difficult changing my life but YMCA Manchester has really helped and I’m pleased with the positive choices I’ve made.”

Tyrone, YMCA Barry

While growing up, Tyrone experienced exclusion due to his severe dyslexia and dyspraxia. He found that school didn’t work for him and eventually left with no qualifications.

Unable to cope with his parents’ separation, by the age of 19 Tyrone had spent 16 months living on the streets. He saw and experienced many things, including assaults, theft and having to search for his next meal from rubbish bins.

This led him to look for a way to better himself and his future. That is when he started volunteering for YMCA Barry.

Tyrone began monitoring young people’s behaviour and maintaining a safe environment. The charity supported Tyrone in his role and offered him opportunities to learn new skills and qualifications. He studied for a Level 2 qualification in Youth Work and since then has gained the confidence to pursue more opportunities and enrol on any course available to him.

In 2013 YMCA Barry presented Tyrone with his very first passport and joined him on a youth exchange trip to France where he met young people from across Europe.

With support Tyrone is achieving his vision of securing a brighter future. He is independent, self-sufficient and working towards full-time employment.