Jan Larkin, CEO of Blackburn-based Nightsafe, explains the work the charity does and how it transforms the lives of vulnerable young people. Photography: Liz Henson Photography
When businesswoman and charity chief Jan Larkin inherited a fish and chip shop when she was just 19, she recalls: “They were the worst three years of my life!”
But Jan, who is now CEO of the hugely successful Nightsafe charity, now admits: “I’m lucky, I’ve gone from having the worst job to the best job in the world. I love the fact that Nightsafe really makes a difference to young people. We see vulnerable youngsters arrive here with nothing – no confidence, no belongings, no home. And, we see them leave with the life skills they need to make their way into settled accommodation and often employment or training. What could be more rewarding?”
Jan, who gained a degree from Leeds university, went on to work as a career advisor in schools and colleges for more than a decade before venturing into more specialised projects such as the Wheels to Work scheme. She also worked with troubled families and with older people on the margins of society helping them into work.
On one such scheme, while working in Darwen she met, and became friends with, the late Paula Kaniuk, who along with former Blackburn mayoress Edna Arnold, founded Nightsafe – a Blackburn-based charity that helps homeless young people.
“I found out about Nightsafe through Paula and Edna, who is lifetime president of the charity. I was blown away with the work they were doing, so I came onto the board of trustees,” recalls Jan, who has been Nightsafe’s CEO for the past five years.
“For me, my job is developing the legacy Paula left behind. I was totally inspired by Paula. Nightsafe is not just about homeless young people. It is looking at how they have become homeless.”
Nightsafe has numerous properties that houses homeless young people aged from 16 to 24 for up to two years, but as Jan explains: “We are so much more than that – we are a holistic service. We provide a family mediation facility and have a respite bed for vulnerable young people in an emergency, ensuring they have a temporary safe place.
“Often, after mediation, they can go back home when issues have been resolved. We see this frequently, it’s very successful.
“Because we are a small charity we have to be very creative in the way we operate, we will give anything a go. We are a not a one-size-fits-all organisation. No-one is ‘just homeless’ often young people have lots of issues that have brought them to that stage in their lives. Homelessness is not a lifestyle choice – it is absolutely not!”
Nightsafe has Platform 5 a Blackburn-based day centre, the Witton Project and the Cornfield Cliffe Project in Darwen, together providing accommodation for up to 15 young people. However, that is all about to change.
“We are in our fifth year of funding from Children in Need and we featured heavily in the lead up trailers to the 2018 programme. They have been incredibly supportive,” explains Jan, who at the time was working with the Rev Sheelagh Aston from St Silas’s in Blackburn.
“Sheelagh wanted to develop the parish hall as part of the church’s mission. She is very interested in supporting homeless young people,” recalls Jan.
Nightsafe was approached by the producers of BBC’s DIY SOS: The Big Build BBC Children in Need Special, asking if they could help convert the parish hall – and Safe@Silas was born.
“It was perfect timing,” says Jan. “We are going to develop the property into accommodation for six young people aged 16 to 18. We have talked to DIY SOS about what we need from the building, but we don’t know exactly what they are going to do – it’s going to be a big reveal on the day!”
TV presenter Nick Knowles and the team will work on the property, originally built in the 1800s, during the first two weeks of September and the show will be aired in November, but meanwhile DIY SOS are on the lookout for local volunteers and local trades people to take part in the ambitious TV renovation. They are appealing for volunteer electricians, plumbers, carpenters, plasterers and decorators to work on the refurbishment.
“We are absolutely delighted with the support from the local community and congregation,” says Jan.
Celebrating its 30th year in December, Nightsafe will, after the TV build, be able to provide a total of 21 beds supporting more vulnerable young people.
“At Nightsafe we are all about creating empowerment not dependency,” adds Jan. “We want our young people to become part of the communities in which they live. We are not an in-your-face charity, we work quietly behind the scenes and are so lucky to have such a wonderful team of staff and volunteers. We don’t have a lot of money but we have a huge amount of support. We understand that people are busy working to put food on the table for their own family, but we never fail to be amazed at how generous people are with their time. We live in one of the most deprived boroughs, but as a charity, we feel very loved.
“We make an impact on the people who walk through our door. They are looked after and supported, given clean clothes and a roof over their head and they leave with more confidence and ready to take the next step.
“Without a shadow of a doubt I have the best job in the world!”
Children in Need DIY SOS is holding a volunteer day for tradespeople on Tuesday 13th August and the build will take place between Tuesday 3rd and Thursday 12th September 2019.
The programme will be aired in November during BBC Children in Need Appeal Week.