Where’s the Johnny Woman? That’s the lament on the streets since Sheffield’s legendary youth worker Donna Jones hung up her boots.
But true to type, Donna, who was awarded an MBE in March for her dedication to the job, is finding new ways of brightening people’s lives...
I’m warning you; you’ll be walking through your estate, minding your own business.
And a car entirely covered in graffiti is going to pull up right in front of you.
Out of it will step a middle-aged woman with an accent as rough as a Barnsley bear’s backside.
If they had bears in Barnsley.
In the language of the street, she will stand there and demand you “Do One.”
But neither bolt, nor quake in fear. For the next thing she will do is break out into a cheery smile and thrust into your hands a big, bold painting.
It’s yours - for free. She would love for you to take home and frame the artwork she has lovingly created for you, a total stranger.
Though she would be equally delighted if you gave it away. Or created your own piece of art and passed it on to a stranger. That’s what she means by “Do One.”
If you’ve never heard of Donna Jones, you’ll assume she lost the menopausal plot.
But most folk on the Manor and Wybourn estates won’t turn a hair.
In their neck of the woods, Donna’s a walking legend. She has done more for their kids than anyone.
For 16 years, along with handing out countless free condoms and safe sex advice, she has listened to them, cajoled them to confidence, showed them how to find to a happier, healthier, more fulfilling life.
And always, it was done the unconventional way.
But after 31 years, Donna gave up youth work last autumn.
The senior practitioner and team leader for Sheffield Futures put up her hand when 95 posts had to go.
“If I’d kept my job it would have been on a new patch.
“I thought I might as well go at 54,” she says.
She figured she’d devote her time to working voluntarily with young people on the estate at the Manor and Young People’s Health Project, which she set up in 1998 and had funded every year since with charity events.
But the estate has lost more than Donna; the project be closed down two months ago by its trustees, a loss which she describes as “premature and unnecessary”.
“The project was a model of excellent practice locally, nationally and internationally.
The Manor and Castle will be far worse off. It was helping the most ‘at risk’ and vulnerable young people,” she says hotly.
But now she is no longer a Sheffield Futures employee, she has to move on.
So Donna is taking her boundless positivity and connecting on a new level.
She’s using not Johnnies, but art, her second biggest passion after the kids, the thing that kept her stress levels down throughout her career.
She will do a painting a day at her home in Walkley - her style is simplistic and vibrant - and drive off in the car “her” kids painted up to find unsuspecting recipients. She says: “I believe everyone should have access to original artwork. But mostly I’m doing it because it feels good to see the look on someone’s face when you give them a painting and it forms an instant connection.
“I want other people to Do One, pass it on and cheer up Sheffield.”
Inspirational headmaster led the way by showing faith in kids
Failure. No one called it her, but she knew that’s what she was.
She’d flunked her 11-plus exam. There was to be no place at a posh school.
Donna Jones wasn’t even surprised; she’d expected to fail. She didn’t believe she was clever. She thought she’d grow up to marry a miner, like her dad, and become a housewife, like her mum, the people who had always told her: “just do your best, love.”
But then a new headmaster arrived at Lundwood’s Littleworth secondary School. Jack Lavelle brought a wave of change - qualifications and aspirations. Donna was among the first Littleworth pupils to study for educational qualifications and take part in the Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme.
She was one of its first two pupils to go on to study A levels at the local grammar school sixth form and its first to go on to university.
“He changed my life, that man,” she says. “Her showed us kids that we were good enough to achieve.”
It was her old headmaster’s steadfast belief that if you showed faith in children, they blossomed, that drove her into working with kids. “I was labelled a failure at 11, but with inspirational, caring and significant adults in my life, I flourished academically and socially. I wanted to be a significant other adult in other kids’ lives.”
Donna has no children of her own because of medical reasons.
But she became a mother figure to the thousands of kids whose lives she shaped, first at Meadowhead, then at Parson Cross, Upperthorpe and latterly at Manor and Castle, one of the most deprived areas of Sheffield.
She balks at the description; insists she has no deep maternal instinct. “I didn’t go into youth work to mother kids. I wanted to tell them they weren’t failures and help them make the most of themselves,” she says. Still, though, now she has time on her hands she is considering fostering. And she admits that, had she had a different career, she might well have had children.
“I think I would have wanted them. But youth work was always 24-7. I’d get home exhausted and really quite glad that I didn’t have my own kids waiting. It would have been too much.”
Not that her career has been a one-way street. The pay-back has been massive, she says.
“Working with young people gave me a second adolescence. While I was growing up my mum was suffering from clinical depression. It was as a result of her having a violent father. She became very ill when I sat my O-levels, then my A-levels and it returned when I left home at 18 to go to university.
“With the kids, I learnt skiing, canoeing, windsurfing, climbing, sailing. I absorbed their energy and enthusiasm for life too. I got so much from their ideas, their strong friendships, their loyalty and their comic way of seeing the world.”
Donna reckons the issues she faced while growing up helped her connect with Sheffield’s younger generation: “I have seen so many similarities in their lives.”
Our teenagers need nurturing
The kids are all right, says Donna.
“Teenagers should be seen as a resource to be developed, not a problem to be contained.
“Usually there are reasons why a young person is behaving in an anti-social way. Society needs to find out what those reasons are, rather than simply labelling them little buggers.”
Often it’s lack of opportunity and self-esteem that takes them down, she believes. “Your typical council estate 16-year-old who messed around in school and whose parents don’t have jobs - how the hell is he going to get through a job interview and find himself a regular income?
“That used to be a young person’s rite of passage to adult life, to a home, a family, ambitions and aspirations.
“But the jobs and the role models aren’t there; we’re talking 25 per cent youth unemployment. So that lad looks to the alternative economy, which is either making money where he can the honest way, by digging folks’ gardens and selling scrap, or getting into petty theft and drug-dealing.
“When the big dealers are driving around in flash cars with gold chains around their necks, the lad of 16 is going to think that’s the better option. A youth worker’s job is to find the vulnerable kids, the ones on the cusp of going wrong, and give them the skills and the confidence to get the jobs that will earn them the cars and the gold chains the legal way.”
Donna’s biggest success was a lad called Jake Bonsall. He was 11 when he followed her around, begging her to give him and his mates something to do. Donna set up a group for them. Jake ended up leading it, training others to be youth leaders, becoming a community volunteer and winning numerous national awards. He is now a Sheffield fireman.
The tactics of Donna and her team included getting the kids off the estates as often as possible.
When she went to pick up her MBE this March, she didn’t miss an opportunity. It was a girl she had met on the streets that she took as her guest.
“She was 13 when I met her and a tough little cookie. But you could tell she was a rough diamond. And true enough, when a Burmese family moved in next door to her, she was the one protecting the kids from being bullied on the estate.
“She was the pebble in the pond, that girl; the other kids followed her lead.”
Over 30 years of experience have proved to Donna the rough diamonds are out there, hoping someone gives them the chance to shine.