An innovative competition run by Buckinghamshire Freemasons is confronting stereotypes by giving young people the chance to show why they care. Sophie Radice reports from the ihelp finals
The atmosphere in Beaconsfield Masonic Centre is buzzing with excitement. Five youth groups from Buckinghamshire have made it into the ihelp finals. Over the afternoon each team will make a presentation to a panel of judges to convince them that they deserve the top prize of £5,000 to fund their community project.
Each team is different. There’s Misunderstood, a street dance group who have raised £4,000 to build a youth club. The Leon School team has been making beautiful bird feeders for a local old people’s home and 1st Stokenchurch Scout troop has been running respite camping weekends for young carers.
Jan Smith from Leon School explains how much being a finalist means to the competitors: ‘Most of our kids have difficulties with learning, and presenting the project to the panel is particularly challenging for them. But being a finalist has been such a boost and the responsibility of putting their case forward has really increased their self-esteem.’
The ihelp project is the brainchild of Buckinghamshire Assistant Provincial Grand Master Mike Stimson and ihelp’s president Eugene Matthias. Three years ago, the two Freemasons found themselves talking over a pint about the mismatch between the young people they knew and the poor image the press gave them.
‘There were so many negative articles about the behaviour of youths and it just seemed so unhelpful. We thought about how great it would be if there was a Britain’s Got Talent-type contest to showcase the good things that young people do for their community,’ says Mike. The idea fitted in well with initiatives set up in 2006 by the then Provincial Grand Master Ray Reed to promote the work that Freemasons do in the community, as well as talk more freely and openly about their fraternity.
Turning an idea into ihelp
With approval from Ray and Deputy Provincial Grand Master Clifford Drake, Mike and Eugene worked together in conjunction with Provincial Information Officer John Poulter and Chris Coombs to roll ihelp out across the Province. ‘We thought up the slogan “Turn Hoodies into Goodies” and reached out to Scouts, Girl Guides, Air Cadets, Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme participants, youth clubs, church groups and schools. The response was amazing,’ remembers Eugene.
Mike explains how the ihelp idea fitted in with the concept of promoting Freemasonry within the community. ‘We already had a big display explaining the Craft, which goes round the local fêtes and community events. So ihelp was the next step,’ he explains. ‘We wanted ihelp to be different. We wanted to encourage youngsters to be the leaders of tomorrow and the successful projects were those led by the kids themselves, whether they’d been running for a while or just got off the ground. Overall, we wanted to ensure that each project embodied our values of friendship, decency and charity. That’s the modern way of explaining brotherly love, relief and truth.’
With the ihelp team constantly being asked to give talks about the project, there has been a great deal of interest in ihelp from local authorities, district councils and local businesses. Freemasons in other counties are now considering taking up the competition and there has been support from the Grand Master, HRH The Duke of Kent, who visited Buckinghamshire in the summer of 2010 to see Freemasonry in the Community projects.
Promoted around the Province through town and village shows, the ihelp project is now in the fabric of Freemasonry in Buckinghamshire. It was through these shows that John made contact with Sir David Jason, who agreed to back the scheme.
Back at the competition, the teams are waiting to make their presentations. Each team is cheered when they go to present in front of the panel and when they come back there is a feeling of real camaraderie rather than rivalry. In the hall where the presentations are being made, the judges do their best to put the young contestants at ease. One of the judges, Clifford, is asked to be part of the Misunderstood dance troop and he rises to the occasion. Donning a large gold chain and a backwards cap, he shows himself to be surprisingly good at following the street dance routine.
With all the presentations making convincing cases for why they should win, the judges have a particularly hard job this year in deciding who should take first prize. In the end it goes to the 1st Stokenchurch Scouts, whose presentation, although perhaps lower key than some of the others, proves to be such a worthy cause that the judges felt they could best benefit from the top prize. Leon School and their temple-like bird feeders get the second prize of £1,000.
After a long day with a lot of laughter and some tears, each team comes away smiling with a generous cheque in their hands. As Emily and Chloe from the 4th Taplow and Hitcham Guides, who raised money to take children with severe joint problems skating, enthusiastically explain: ‘We got so much out of coming here today and being runners-up. It was a great experience learning how to speak to an audience and present our case. We loved it!’