Meet Ricky Tomlinson, the people person using his own experiences to inspire young people across Middlesbrough
Ricky Tomlinson is warm, friendly and usually wears a giant smile.
That innate positivity helps with his job.
Ricky is a senior youth worker who has helped thousands of kids across the town “who are struggling to be the people they want to be”.
And the 36-year-old draws on his own childhood for inspiration.
“I wasn’t very good in school, and it was difficult for my mum. I left school and my step dad said to me ‘people like you, you’re funny’. I always tried to help people and they said I was a people person,” said Ricky, who lived in Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Ghana before he and his family settled in Middlesbrough.
Despite struggling in his school exams, Ricky decided he wanted to use his background to help other people, enrolling at Middlesbrough College then Sunderland University to help him get into youth work.
“I thought I would use myself as a role model to those youngsters, just by being myself,” he continued.
“I’ve always been a people person. Since then, I haven’t looked back.”
Ricky has worked at the Linx Project for around six years.
Originally set up in Hemlington in 1993, it now offers youth clubs and support services across Middlesbrough – giving young people “a sense of pride and direction”, says Ricky.
“It’s a place where young people can socialise and build a bond,” Ricky continued.
“We can teach them social and life skills, give them an awareness of something else. Whatever they want to try, we try and provide that for them.”
Of course, lockdown has been hard for young people in Middlesbrough – a town where a higher than average proportion come from challenging or deprived backgrounds.
To help, with physical activities and meetups cancelled, the Linx Project delivered more than 50 food packages a week to the families of youngsters they worked with.
“We have an allotment here that we get young people to work on. Some of them say it’s a therapeutic thing for them. It takes them off the streets, away from whatever else they’re doing, it’s completely different,” he continued.
“Lockdown has affected a lot of young people’s mental health. This kind of thing helps them forget what’s been going on.”
Ricky relays one story of a young girl who had been expelled from school and was missing from home.
“The police and other authorities couldn’t connect with her,” said Ricky, who looks over at the spot, just outside the charity’s Hemlington offices, where the girl sat.
“It turns out all she wanted was somewhere with the internet so she could go on her phone and just sit for a few hours.
“We let her. She eventually calmed down, she just needed some space and time. We built that trust with her. It’s hard to do, but we try to be different. We have to relate to each other.
“They are not bad kids. That’s what we don’t want anyone to think. They need trust, they need to be listened to.”
Ricky is happy to talk up the town – and the young people he works with.
“When you ask them, they all say Linx is one of the best places to go. We do not tell them what to do.
“Well, we do,” Ricky smiles again, broadly, as he corrects himself. “But it’s in a different way.
“You’ll have kids who don’t listen at school, don’t listen to the police. But they trust us, and they will listen.
“We say – it’s about responsibility and accountability. If they don’t behave themselves, then they lose out on what they like to do. But we’re giving them a chance. Everyone is welcome.
“There’s definitely a stigma, a stereotype about some kids – especially from some parts of town. People complain, say they’re just hanging around.
“Deep down, most of these kids are good and they’re not causing any problems, they’re just looking for something to do.
“I’ll go anywhere in town and I’m not scared. Because they are good kids, just looking for something to do. I get recognised by someone almost everywhere I go.
“It’s about getting to know them, and putting things in place.
“No young person is bad. But you must find ways to engage with them.
“There’s a lot going on in a young person’s mind. We need to try and figure out what that is.
“It could be something happening at home – maybe the only way that kid knows how to deal with their anger, is to go out and throw stones.”
Ricky is based at Breckon Hill in Longlands, while Linx also works in Newport, Grove Hill and Hemlington, with its workers engaging with around 300 young people a week.
As well as the indoor and outdoor youth clubs, it holds outreach events and field trips and even exchange programs with Middlesbrough’s twin town Oberhausen.
Dad-of-two Ricky now lives in Acklam after living in Middlesbrough town centre for a number of years.
“I’m proud of my job and the help we give people – I love what I do,” he continued.
“I’ve friends in London, they say ‘isn’t Middlesbrough the worst place to live?’.
“I just laugh and say, ‘have you seen London?’. I think London is the worst place to live! We’ve got lots to be proud of here, we need to give ourselves a chance.”