Today 860 youth work agencies, 263 youth centres, and 597 hobby schools work for and with young people. In 2016, there were 285,155 young people aged 7–26 in Estonia. Additionally, youth work takes place in schools, clubhouses, participation councils, congregations, on the streets, in student brigades, camps, and online.
In Estonia, youth centres were first mentioned in 1998. A youth centre is a youth work agency based on the principle of open youth work where all young people can go to on a voluntary basis, and which can function as the centre for organising the youth work of a particular neighbourhood. Youth centres have been established with the support of youth initiative, based on their preferences, and such centres operate with the interests and needs of young people in mind above all.
As at 2017, the whole of Estonia is evenly covered by a network of youth centres. Which means that there are 1,064 young people per centre. Every county seat, the main economic hubs, towns, villages, and small towns, which are close to the main highways, usually have a youth centre. 70% of the country’s youth centres are owned by local governments. Owing to this fact, the financing of Estonian youth centres varies. Several local governments have asked the third sector to be the service provider. A legal entity that is in the process of establishing or developing a youth centre, or seeking to cooperate with a youth centre, must take account of the fact that most of the regular activities of a youth centre are free for young people, and it is therefore important to think the financing programme of the centre through.
No uniform state-approved law, standard, or operating model pertaining to youth centres exists in Estonia. An activity licence is not required to be a provider of youth centre services. The presence of a youth worker and separate premises, which are open to young people at least 20 hours a week, are essential, as well as the employment of the open youth work method in the operations of the centre. The Association of Estonian Open Youth Centres (AEYC) and experts in the field approved the recommended guidelines Best Practice of Youth Centres in 2013 in order to harmonise the principles of operation and the reputation of the domain. The document is a recommended auxiliary paper when one is establishing, developing, supporting, or starting cooperation with a youth centre. In 2013 the LOGBOOK electronic monitoring system for youth centres was established to collect daily statistics and document everyday activities.
Why do Estonian young people come to youth centres?
There are various reasons for visiting youth centres in Estonia. One reason stated by young people is the possibility to spend time with their friends and implement their innovative ideas. Experience of success motivates young people to come back again and again to discover new facets of themselves. This enables us to establish reliable contact with young people and support them on their journey.
Although youth centres base the organisation of their activities on the same legislation, different youth centres in different parts of Estonia are still managed by people with different educational backgrounds and approaches, which results in the creation of physical and social environments that are different in nature — youth centres. Owing to this, the options for activities provided by youth centres vary to a great degree across Estonia. The objectives of establishing a youth centre depend on the location, number of young people in the area, and the priorities/resources of the local government above all.
The choice of options for activities provided by a youth centre must be based on the interests of young people and regional needs/agreements.
Nowadays, there is a shared understanding of the usual, i.e. basic activities of a youth centre. However, each youth centre can determine the focus and capacity of its activities. It is important to ensure that the activities offered by a youth centre facilitate young people’s self-initiative and informal learning as well as the acquisition of experiences through activities and communication. In accordance with the principles of open youth work, the activities of a youth centre must be available to young people on an equal basis.
Basic option/activities provided by youth centres range from offering an open youth area/room to providing information and primary counselling to supporting the young people in realising their own projects. Activities that are usually offered in case of specific preparations and extra funds can be mobile youth work, facilitation of employability or recreational activities.
opportunities to experience success and improve their self-esteem
Impact of youth centres
Youth centres play a big role in creating an environment for socialisation. The environment of a youth centre helps young people find friends and like-minded individuals; it creates a feeling of community and ties people to their native region. Above all, the activities of youth centres influence young people to acquire skills and proficiencies that are required to get by in life, they facilitate young people’s capacity for initiative, as well as their imagination; youth centres develop critical and systematic thinking, support one’s search for identity, socialisation, and the formation of values.
By participating in the activities of a youth centre, young people can learn and experience responsibility, find answers to questions, such as their future choice of profession, or differences between cultures and approaches, understand globalising societies, develop practical skills, such as planning and implementing learning and youth work options.
Additionally, youth centres provide young people who have fewer opportunities, incl. socially disadvantaged young people, with opportunities to experience success and improve their self-esteem. Youth centres help make positive decisions and teach how to be responsible for one’s decisions.
We could not be efficient in our work if we did not constantly remind ourselves of why we have established these youth centres. We created these centres so that each young person would have an equal opportunity of finding their potential, pursuing their hobbies, and so that young people could sometimes simply share their joys and sorrows. We must never forget this humane aspect — every big thing begins with the first contact, which must create a feeling of trust and safety. Therefore, we must find a balance in our work. Do we involve more and more young people in youth work, or do we help solve situations that already exist? There can be no single solution because young people in Estonia — young people and not just particular local governments — have different needs.
We have made a start, but there is still a long road ahead of us. All the more because the society, including our young people, are constantly changing. Being ahead of new trends and changes in the way people think is also the greatest challenge of Estonian youth work. In the future, we want to be there welcoming young people with an open attitude and warmth. Are we ready for what awaits us tomorrow? I believe that we are, because people who do not love challenges could not be active in youth work.
by Heidi Paabort (2017)
is the director of the Association of Estonian Open Youth Centres (AEYC) and manager of the Youth Prop-Up sub-meassure under the Youth Guarantee.
Photos: © Heidi Paabort