31 January 2022

YMCA Exeter resident, Natalie Overson was 16 years old when she staged a sleep-in with fellow youth, determined to keep their youth centre in Okehampton open.

“When we heard our youth centre was going to be shut, we couldn’t believe it. There was no way we were going to let it happen,” explains 23-year-old Natalie Overson.

Natalie was in her early teens when she moved to the rural Devon community of Okehampton. She knew no-one, but soon started attending the local youth centre.

Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night Natalie would head to the youth group. She remembers learning how to cook fajitas there, trying Haggis and Tiffin for the first time during a St Andrews Day celebration and even remembers a night camping on Exmoor with all the youth.

Natalie explains in her own words:

“The youth centre was a place where I could open up and it got me out of the house. It was amazing to have regular youth workers – they were always there for us. I can’t really imagine what my teenage years would have been like without the youth centre – I’d have been a lot more of a recluse.”

Then one day the group of young people heard that the government was planning to shut the youth centre to save money. 

“We knew that we couldn’t let them do this,” explains Natalie. “Our youth centre was vital for a rural area that didn’t have anything else.

“We staged a peaceful protest, gathered media attention and did a ‘sleep-in’ at the centre. It felt so empowering to know that we could do something to protest and in the end they kept our youth centre open, along with a couple of other rural ones.”

Natalie is no longer living in Okehampton, or part of the small youth group. But thanks to the inspirational campaigning of these young people eight years ago, the youth centre in Okehampton is still running and reaching young people through summer activities, Friday night drop-ins, couch to 5k groups and forest school.

Natalie’s story is a powerful reminder of how we can use our voice to make a difference.

Providing youth services is an essential part of YMCA Exeter’s work.

We’re currently supporting the small, rural community of Broadclyst village – running youth work for children and teenagers.

Youth worker, Becky Merriman explains how essential this work is:

“We give young people in the community a safe space to connect with a youth worker and with each other. It allows young people that live in the rural community not to feel so isolated from each other and disconnected from the world.”