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Friday interview | The CEO who was told she would never amount to anything

When Mandy Coppin found herself homeless at 16, she became more determined than ever to make something of her life. Now CEO of young people's charity Streetwise she reflects on her journey...

By Laura Kingston

First of all, can we hear more about Streetwise? It sounds like a great support to young people.

Absolutely. Sometimes there are things that young people just can’t talk to their friends or family about. At Streetwise we provide a range of support services under one roof and out in our communities including; information, advice, guidance, counselling and mental health, sexual health and relationship support to young people between 11 – 25 who are facing a challenge, a dilemma, a crisis or just want some support in everyday life. 

There are four main areas to Streetwise – advice, information and guidance drop-ins; sexual health and relationships clinic; mental health and counselling support; and detached and outreach youth work activities.

We have 28 staff in total. Nine qualified counsellors, nine community and youth workers and our detached team make up our front line services. NHS nurses run sexual health clinics at our centre three times a week. They provide everything from pregnancy testing, STI testing, relationship support and emergency contraception. Our services aim to break down those barriers by making our young people feel that they are in a safe, friendly and non-judgemental environment. Our management team is only five as we want as much of our funding as possible to go on our front line services. 

Our aim is to empower young people to make informed choices and realise their own potential. We help them to explore their own skills and provide resources to help them achieve what they want to achieve in a way that supports their independence.

What’s the demographic of the young people you work with?

We provide support to those who live, work and study in Newcastle primarily, although we would never turn a young person away. There can be an assumption that we just help those who are disadvantaged by poverty or background but we have a wide range of young people who access our services. All young people can have emotional health and wellbeing challenges, anxiety, depression or suffer from peer pressure. 

Everyone who accesses our services do so voluntarily. We work with anyone aged 11 – 25 and we do a lot of work with young people between the ages of 11-14 to give them the support and tools to help prevent issues from escalating in the future.

The charity was founded 28 years ago and over that time we’ve helped tens of thousands of young people in our region. Lots of them come back to see us, Streetwise alumni include musicians, performing artists, designers and actors. We have supported many young women who were told, like me, that they would never amount to anything who are now psychologists, engineers, health workers and teachers. 

I can be filling the car up somewhere and get a tap on the shoulder – when I turn around I’m greeted by one of the young people we’ve helped who go on to tell me about their own business or their own families and how well they are doing. It’s heartwarming and so rewarding. 

So tell us about you, as you’ve had a very inspiring journey to get to this point! 

I came to Streetwise six years ago as CEO. It’s funny because 28 years ago when Streetwise was first set up I interviewed for a job and was turned down. It was the only job I’ve ever not got. It was completely understandable as I was straight out of university, but I knew that I wanted to work with young people in a similar role, so I helped set up another charity, End House in Durham. We operated for 15 years, won national awards and actually became a sister charity to Streetwise. 15 years later, I came back to Streetwise and was appointed CEO. 

When someone tells me not to do something, or that I can’t do something, I often raise to the challenge and do it anyway. From my perspective as a woman, at a very early age I was told that I wouldn’t amount to anything, I shouldn’t put myself forward for anything. I have three brothers and felt that it was unfair so started challenging assumptions at an early age. When I was 16 my family moved away from Newcastle. I didn’t want to do that and didn’t feel that I should do something that I really didn’t want to do, so I became a sofa-surfer and essentially homeless. I finished my A-levels but also worked. I was a cleaner at Associated Dairies one night a week, I worked two nights a week in a cafe – at one point I had four jobs whilst studying at the same time.  

By the time I was 18 I was very conscious of wanting to make something of myself. I saw my friends going in different directions and decided to really push through barriers and achieve something that I could feel proud of. 

What would your advice be to other women who might feel disadvantaged by their situation?

See everything in life as a challenge, be curious – just go for it. What’s the worst that could happen? If you don’t achieve it, you can learn from it. Never say you can’t do anything unless you give it a try. Push through those boundaries because you become much richer and wiser for doing so. It’s a huge sense of achievement when you do make it, no matter how small the goal. 

Women can be easily put off, undermined or pressured into not doing something for fear of failure, but failing is not an issue, it’s all about the learning curve and finding out more about yourself.

As a woman over 50 I think it is so important for adults to be positive role models for young women coming through the ranks. Step-up for each other and ensure everyone feels important and valued.

What changes have you made to Streetwise in the last six years?

I’ve steadied the ship. We’re a small charity but have a big heart and lots of passion and enthusiasm. There are shared values and energy here at Streetwise and everyone who works here wants to help young people in a way that helps them grow and develop. 

A big part of my role here has been to ensure that we haven’t been pulled in different directions and stayed focussed. We’ve developed and grown services in response to young people’s needs, ideas and suggestions. Our Youthwise group of young volunteers helps to develop our services, telling us what is good and what needs improving in order to keep the charity relevant. They are involved in interviewing staff and really help to shape the future of the charity. 

A lot of my time is spent writing applications for funding – it’s hard to get funding for a small charity but it was incredibly important to me as a CEO that we increased our funding so that everyone working for us felt secure in their jobs and could focus on delivering services. 

I do a huge amount of networking to make sure people know that we’re here, and I also like to spend time with the young people that we support to check I’m representing their views accurately. 

Just before Christmas I came downstairs to the reception area for a break from writing bids and met a young woman who had come back to visit us. She came to Streetwise for counselling after she had been told she wouldn’t achieve anything in life. She’s now at University studying Psychology and is flying, we are so proud of her, that’s the kind of thing that makes it all worth it and really fuels my passion. 

What have you got planned next?

Well, I’m nearly at the end of my career so for me it’s time to start thinking about succession planning. I’m quite a controlling person and perfectionist so I will have to learn to step back a bit.

Someone once told me: “you don’t always have to strive for Rolls Royce standards, a good Audi will do” – and it’s so true. I’m now much better at choosing my battles and not feeling like I need to fight everything.

One thing is for certain though, I don’t think I’ll ever not be involved in working with young people because that’s been my life. 

In my spare time, I love flying. I learned when I was 50 and I’m one of only a handful of women in the country who fly flexwing microlight aircraft. In 2016 I was one of the 42 pilots who flew our planes down the River Tyne in support of Streetwise and since then I’ve organised lots of flying events such as treasure hunts and competitions in the air. I’d definitely like to do more of that. 

And finally, North East favourites?!

I spend a lot of time out walking in Blanchland. We love to stop at the Lord Crewe Arms or The White Monk Tearoom

I love to fly over Holy Island. It’s one of my favourite places and very special to me. We scattered my mum’s ashes there last year.

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