As Tony Gearing monitored the international wires on the late shift at the Independent newspaper in London, something about the job he loved was beginning to bother him.
“It was the millennium … the turn of a new century and I was getting angry with my own profession. The media was starting the 2000s with a completely negative view of the youth who were going to be our future.”
The millennium was in fact set to become the era of the hoody – the hidden face of violence and anti-social behaviour, a dark spectral fashion adopted by a ‘new breed’ known as chavs and Neds. Newspapers were full of reports of gang violence and crime. Drugs and shoplifting were rife.
And the UK was about to witness the first real form of hi-tech violence, happy slapping. Once again youth culture had become something to be feared on our streets.
Things were changing for Tony too. He was in his 40s, a dad of two and his personal life was in turmoil.
“Today, I still have printing ink coursing through my veins but back then everything just seemed so negative about the job. And my home life wasn’t going too well either. I really needed to find something positive …”
Then something happened … he walked away from his high-paying Fleet Street job with an extraordinary ambition. He had decided to change the tawdry image of Britain’s youth once and for all.
So, in 2004, Tony Gearing began the Young People of the Year awards.
He said: “Local papers no longer had the resources to dig out the stories that they used to and it was easier to go to the police station and find six negative stories about young people than get out and find one positive story. There was a a creeping negativity supported by absurd anti-hoodie stories.”
Tony set out on a crusade to highlight the positives that young people were achieving.
“If you’re 16 and want to make your mark and you read in the paper about antisocial behaviour orders then that’s one option open to you,” He said: “But if you get positive role model you’re giving the young people who see those stories a choice.
“It was hard work setting it up but I found young people doing fantastic things who were going unrecognised.”
The scheme spread quickly across Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Essex and Nottinghamshire with a a panel of judges of local dignitaries including the MPs, police and young people themselves.
Tony held his first Young People of the Year awards in Royston in 2005. He held competitions in Hertsmere and St Albans in 2007 and Watford and Three Rivers in 2008.
He expanded the campaign to the whole of Hertfordshire in 2010, and at the same time started other Young People of the Year awards in a dozen English counties, London and Scotland.
Dr Jan Telensky, a Luton ‘financial angel’ who has supported YOPEY, said: “I want our young generation to look back with pride, not shame, to respect themselves and to be respected.”
And since 2004 about 6,000 young people have been proud to be entered for an award.
YOPEY also runs Befriender schemes where young people help elderly people in care homes.
Tony said: “After training, the young people are expected to visit their local care home regularly and entertain residents. They can join in general activities or form particular friendships and write their friend’s life history. As well as being a memento for the resident’s family, the life history helps the home to care for the resident.”
Earlier this year Tony was made an MBE for services to young people in the UK.
He said said: “I haven’t achieved this alone. This MBE is for all the young people who have taken part in YOPEYs, whether or not they went on to be shortlisted for one of our lavish awards ceremonies. They are all winners!
“It is also for all the friends I roped in to help and for my wife Jo, who keeps my nose to the grindstone and gives me some of my best ideas.”
So, has Tony and the YOPEY awards changed the face of youth as he intended all those years ago?
He said: “We obviously can’t change all the ills in the world … but if every week or month and year we can show young people that it is a good thing to care for others, to help and to show each other respect, then we have done something good in this world. All I can say is that we will carry on doing everything we can to make a difference.”