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Interview: Andy Smith, co-founder of Regenerate

04 September 2020

‘I want to provide a job for any young person in Wandsworth who needs one’

Regenerate is a charity based in south-west London, working with young people on housing estates. Our vision is to create opportunities for young people to thrive. We run two youth centres on the estates, and mentoring programmes; organised volunteering trips to Romania and Kenya; train up young leaders; and run a social enterprise.

I grew up in Surrey, and went to a very outward-looking church. We moved to south-west London when I was 17, and I’ve lived on the Alton estate in Roehampton since I was 21. It’s a very large estate, one of the largest in Europe, and I love it. It’s a really strong community, but it has its struggles and battles. It also has a lot of great things and people, which makes it a place where we choose to live and work.

When I was very young, I worked as care assistant in the local community. Yes, I think care workers should be better rewarded: they’ve really given their lives, or put them on the line, in this pandemic to help others. But I don’t know if anything will really change.

I went on a trip to Romania when I was 16, and that had a profound impact on me: seeing that poverty, and wanting to make a difference with my life. I was part of a small church-plant in Putney, and helping with the social side of things, and then got a job in a day centre for elderly people.

When I first came up to London, I saw something of the poverty that I’d seen in Romania, which had really moved me in my teens. You don’t have to go all that far to find poverty.

I set up Regenerate with my mum, Mo Smith, with the help of a group of friends on the estate who wanted to make a difference and demonstrate something of God’s love where there were needs and poverty in our community. Now, I work for Regenerate full time. My mum still runs Regenerate Rise, focusing specifically on elderly people.

Clare is my wife, and we run the charity together: it’s a team effort. She manages the projects and the staff; I come up with the ideas and take a lead, and she makes them happen. But we do mix things around a bit — it’s quite fluid. She’s a very strong leader and an amazing manager. We’ve got about 20 staff; so it’s not a small operation any more.

We began in a Methodist church hall on the Alton estate with a lunch club for the elderly, in January 2000, and then we started some after-school clubs for young people.

As more young people got involved, we shaped our projects and programmes around the changing needs. So, when there was a lot of anti-social behaviour, we started running clubs and loads of trips off the estate. It was all about creating opportunities and building positive relationships — getting alongside people where they are at.

We then started taking groups of young people to volunteer with a project in Kenya. The young people from our projects had such life-changing impacts, that we built on that and have since taken hundreds of young people from the estates to volunteer and build relationships with people from other communities around the world.

We live in a classist, racist society that doesn’t give fair opportunities to people from tough backgrounds. Some were brought up in an overcrowded flat, in broken families, struggled at school, and were rejected there — very hard for them. I’m sure it’s not the way God intended things to be, but, because of greed and selfishness, some people have to work harder.

People have tried to help them — but if you give them an opportunity to try and help others, that lifts them. One kid who’d had a very difficult upbringing was in a lot of trouble with the police. He saw kids in Kenya, and decided he wanted to focus his time and money to help street children there.

I’ve seen that happen time and time again with other people who’ve had a really tough time. They’ve experienced something of the Kingdom of God, and it starts them loving and caring for people — which changes something on the inside as well.

This also led to us starting the Feel Good Bakery: to create jobs for young people who had said they didn’t want to sell drugs but wanted to do something great with their lives.

About 300 young people engage with us regularly. The thing that makes me really proud is seeing them come through our projects and go on to change the world for good in many different ways.

All the way through our journey, we’ve been supported by people on the estate. Our first donation was a cheque from the convent on the estate. Different churches are supporting us massively through prayer, finance, volunteers. . . And now the diocese of London is one of the biggest customers for the Feel Good Bakery, which is great.

I’d still like to do more to develop the employment opportunities for every young person in our area who wants to turn their life around through our bakery and coffee enterprises. I want to provide a job for any young person in Wandsworth who needs one.

I had a real experience of God at different times when I was a child and as a teenager. I’ve always felt inspired by Jesus and how he showed humanity another way of life. My faith is deep, and my hope is to outwork it through my life.

This August, I’m cycling London to Brighton the long way round, via Land’s End, with some of our supporters and young people. It’s for adventure and a challenge post-lockdown, which has been really hard. The cycling has been hard, but it’s been great. I’m getting fitter. . .

It’s really fun. So far we’ve done 400 miles in six days, and it’s been a great experience just to get people out of the estate. There are a lot of hills in Cornwall, but we’ve got a minibus with us as a support to the team. They carry the luggage and sort out our food. There’ve been all sorts of people on our way donating to our work or buying us lunch, too; so that’s been terrific. There are 14 of us. The youngest is 21.

Last year, we did a big bike ride to Africa, and also took some supporters and young Regenerate people on a kayak trip from the source of the Thames to the sea. Again, it’s for adventure, and raising funds for our work.

We started the bakery, really, for one kid who wanted to change his life. He’d had a really tough upbringing and a lot of problems, which left him attracted to gang life and drugs. Could we provide him with a job? So we set up the bakery, and give the young people who run it mentoring, training, support, and counselling if they want it. It’s paid employment: they sell our sandwiches to businesses, events, cafés. And we expanded by starting a coffee business to create more jobs. For every sandwich or coffee that they make and sell, we fund a meal for a child in one of our partner projects in Kenya or Romania.

Now, rather than providing for catering for offices, we’re outside, for people who want to pick up a sandwich rather than going into a restaurant or a café. It’s exciting: we’re based by St Mary’s, Battersea, on the River Thames path, where there’s a lot of footfall, and we’re planning a second outlet in Putney in September.

Injustice makes me angry: when I see that people aren’t given the same opportunities in life if they’re from poorer backgrounds. That’s what I’m trying to change.

Seeing people thrive makes me happy. Being with friends, holidays, going on adventures, seeing some of our dreams becoming reality.

Over the 20 years, Regenerate’s had its ups and down. There’s always going to be challenges working with people who’ve had trauma and difficulties, which is a lot of great people on the estate. It’s not for everyone. I just feel like it’s a platform to outwork that I’m called to do.

I’m praying most to be guided by Jesus, for his help and support. We can’t do it in our own strength: we have to follow him. It’s about trust; praying and then trusting that the opportunities and people that come your way are those God put in your path.

I love the sound of my wife singing. She’s a singer-songwriter and writes her own music.

If I was locked in a church with anyone, I’d want it to be with St Bono of U2. I’ve always been inspired by his music and his songs and his performances. I’d love to have a chat with him.


Andy Smith was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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