Hackney People: Colette Allen

The director of Hackney Quest talks about the work the charity does to support young people and families

COLLETE Allen had never worked with young people, or even in the charity sector, when 15 years ago, she applied for a job at Hackney Quest. 

She just had a sense that she wanted to do something more meaningful than her old role in communications, when she spotted a job advertised in the local paper. She applied, got the position and is still there today, but as the charity’s director. She says: “From the moment I walked in the door I loved it so much that it was impossible to leave.”

Hackney Quest, a charity that works to support young people and families in the borough, first opened its doors in 1988. When Colette joined, as an administrator, it was running, she says ‘out of a shop front, effectively, on Well Street’. 

Today, the charity has grown enormously but, adds Colette: “The atmosphere is just the same as it was on my first day. I felt it as soon as I entered: it was warm and personal and supportive and I thought, this is where I want to be.”

Seeing the impact that the charity was having on the young people who came through its doors, changed the course of her life. She explains: “Sometimes, in those first years, I would see young people in really difficult or complicated situations and just want to take them home with me. But you can’t take them all in.” 

Instead, she trained in youth work and, after having her second child, returned to the charity in 2003 as a project manager and then, a couple of years later, as its director.

She adds: “I had to learn all the skills on the job. Everything from volunteer management to fundraising, via budgeting. We do some of the hardest work in the community, while simultaneously having to raise the money to make it happen. It only works because we have such a great board of directors and such a strong team. We all support each other.”

In 2004, the charity moved to new and bigger premises. From a staff of three, with 20 volunteers when Colette joined, it grew to a staff of six, with around 70 volunteers. From one core project, the charity expanded its efforts to encompass the multiple projects it runs today, from family support to the Frampton Park Youth and Family Centre, which opened in 2012.

Colette continues: “Sometimes there’s a fear of young people, so the centre brings the generations within its community together. It’s a youth club in the evening, but also hosts running clubs, lunches, coffee mornings and projects for the socially isolated. It’s worked so well, it’s held up as a model for community centres on housing estates.”

As the charity has grown, Colette’s children have too. “My kids come to the projects,” she says, adding: “My 12-year-old was saying only yesterday that she wants to get involved.”

The young people Colette met when she first joined the charity have grown-up too. One girl, who was 10 when Colette first encountered her, is now 24 and volunteering at the place that helped her as a child. 

“Sometimes, it’s hard to measure the impact you’re having, but we know it’s huge and she illustrates that for me, she’s what it’s all about,” says Colette.

Then, there’s the little boy she met when she first joined the charity. “He was a real cheeky chappy, but so vulnerable, I used to stay up worrying that something truly terrible was going to happen to him, but the next day, he’d turn up again.”

Today, he is 25-years-old and still pops in to the charity regularly. “I give him a huge hug and I tell him ‘you give me hope for every young person’,” says Colette.

More typically, of course, it works the other way round: the charity giving young people hope. She adds: “I saw a young man walking down the road the other day. Then in Tesco I recognised him as one of our young people and said hello. He turned to me in this gruff voice and said ‘Those days at Hackney Quest were the best of my life, you know?’”