Off the Record faces fight for survival

Debbie Smith a counsellor, talking to a young person at Off The Record in Fratton Road, Portsmouth.'' ''Picture: Allan Hutchings (132422-167)
Debbie Smith a counsellor, talking to a young person at Off The Record in Fratton Road, Portsmouth.'' ''Picture: Allan Hutchings (132422-167)

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The future of an award-winning charity which has transformed the lives of thousands of young people is in jeopardy due to lack of funding.

The future of an award-winning charity which has transformed the lives of thousands of young people is in jeopardy due to lack of funding.

Off The Record, which has centres in Fratton and Leigh Park, gives free counselling to young people aged 11 to 25.

But that service is at risk because of a double blow from Portsmouth City Council withdrawing funding and, from next year, charging a commercial rent on the Fratton office it leases to the charity.

Previously it charged only a peppercorn rent.

Theresa Wade, the chief executive of Off The Record, says that if the charity has to close, the taxpayer will inevitably have to foot the bill for more young people going into the costly criminal justice system and NHS mental health care.

Theresa said: ‘The figures we are talking about to save Off The Record are so small. And we save the city and the county hundreds of thousands of pounds.

‘Every young person who does not enter the criminal justice system, or does not end up with emotional or mental health needs, saves the local taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds each year.

‘Where will they go if we do not provide this service?’

Havant Borough Council grants £7,000 each year.

The amount Hampshire has awarded the charity decreased from £35,000 to £10,000 so far this year.

In Portsmouth, the council has withdrawn funding – of around £3,000 – completely. And they will start to charge rent next year of between £5,000 and £6,000.

Councillor Hugh Mason, the deputy leader of Portsmouth City Council, said it was a tough decision but it had to be done.

‘We have to save money where we can,’ he said. ‘Any charitable organisations which are in a position to be able to raise their own funds, by whatever means, that is an area where we have to consider to cut.

‘There is nothing which is sacrosanct which Portsmouth City Council has funded in the past.’

Meanwhile the council has chosen to continue to fund charities such as Relate and Portsmouth Counselling Service.

Mr Mason said: ‘The people who go to Relate are very vulnerable and in great difficulties. The stability of society is very important.’

But, Theresa points out, people aged 18 and under do not have salaries and are not entitled to benefits with which to pay for private counselling.

She said: ‘I just think, how much does it cost to save the life of a young person?’

Last year the service saw 2,080 clients. There are 100 young people on the waiting list for counselling and volunteers are working extra hours to try to help them.

‘The charity is surviving on trust funds, donations and reserves,’ said Theresa. ‘But the situation can’t continue. There is a minimal paid staff.

‘The service is incredibly cost-effective. We won the Queens Award two years-ago. Two years on we are still here – a well managed, well known, well established organisation. We recognise we need to restructure. To provide a new minimal Off The Record, to provide front line support, to still be supportive, we think we can probably do that on £40,000 for one centre and £30,000 for the second. That is the sort of money we need for the short term.’ Counsellors are there to discuss the wide range of issues which impact the lives of young people, including bullying, housing, sexual health, money problems, sexuality issues, drugs, drink and eating problems. GPs refer patients to the service.

Theresa added: ‘Young people don’t want to go to statutory services. They want something in the local community that is free, confidential and they can access easily.

‘We can transform the lives of young people.’

The charity was set up 35 years ago by a group of people in Leigh Park, when the estate was still fairly new, in the church rooms at the back of Botley Drive.

In 1989 it moved to Three Ways, in Purbrook Way – where it remains today.

To contact Off The Record call (023) 9281 5322 for the Portsmouth centre or (023) 9247 4724 for the Havant service. Alternatively call the support helpline on 0808 80 10 724.

E-mail otr@off-the-record.org.uk.

For more information visit off-the-record.org.uk.

Donations are urgently needed in order to keep the service going. To donate go to justgiving.com/off-the-record1

Stephen Guest is someone whose life was changed by Off The Record.

Aged 22, he was so depressed he couldn’t leave the house.

He suffered extreme panic attacks made worse by drug taking.

He had no qualifications and felt his life had no purpose. When his GP prescribed him anti-depressants he asked for an alternative. Instead his doctor referred him to Off The Record and his life began.

Now 29, he is recognised as one of the best hair colourists in the country. Counselling with Off The Record helped him overcome his problems and gave him the confidence to go travelling and that is when he decided which path his life was to take.

Stephen, from Southsea, said: ‘Off The Record helped me understand my problems. That is the biggest thing I learned – and how to cope with it.

‘The service was great. I went from someone who could hardly leave the house because I was having panic attacks to having the confidence to buy a camper van and go off around Europe on my own.

‘It gave me time to think about what I wanted to do. I’m now a master colour expert for Wella. I think my story shows how a young man who couldn’t find his way in the world, found it with the help of Off The Record.’

Debbie Smith, a mum-of-one, has been volunteering at Off The Record for five years.

She said: ‘It’s such a worthwhile work place.

‘The young people of Portsmouth need someone to go where it is a safe environment and where they will not be judged.

‘We all need someone to talk to. Seeing the difference in a young person who has been having counselling from then to now is a wonderful.

‘To know you have played a part in helping a young person get to a better place is a heartwarming. It can be challenging but we all have the support of each other I have made some lovely friends along the way and I have learnt a lot about myself.’

Dave Doe has 21 years of experience volunteering at Off The Record.

He said: ‘For the last 17 years I have counselled young people with problems such as depression, eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal thoughts and never lose sight of how brave these young people are. I have seen people on the verge of taking their own lives or unable to even talk to people turn their lives around and become happy well rounded and very together adults.’

He added: ‘Off The Record changes lives. Not only the wonderful young people that we help but all of us volunteers lead more fulfilling useful lives because of the fantastic work that goes on there. The young people give us their trust and it is a privilege to work with them.

‘It would be tragic to not lose such an amazing service.’