SURROUNDED by derelict whisky bonds and the industrial wasteland that came with the demise of Leith’s docklands, The Citadel Youth Centre offered a beacon of hope for families disadvantaged by poverty as the Capital’s port underwent colossal upheaval in the late-70s and 80s... and then came heroin, claiming a generation of youngsters.
Through it all the Citadel (opened in 1980 by a group of local mothers keen to provide a safe environment for children in the area), has cared for generations of Leithers, providing everything from careers advice, to emotional support.
It’s a place where young people can discover who they are and one that also fulfils a most basic of needs, by feeding them.
“It had already been running for 15 years when I started,” says Willy Barr, who joined the staff in 1995 and who, for the last 15 years, has been the centre manager.
A 53-year-old father of two, Willy is a well kent face in Leith, so much so that in 2015 and again in 2016, he was invited to be the port’s Mock Provost, a role he relished.
“What was magic about that was that the kids made me a cardboard Provost’s medal,” he says, laughing, “it was great until it disintegrated in heavy rain as I was turned on the Christmas lights one year.”
It’s quickly clear that Willy is passionate about the work of the Citadel and soon the conversation takes a serious turn.
“If somebody had said to me 23 years ago that the Citadel would still be going today, I’d have thought, ‘Maybe’.
“Had they said it would be busier than ever, I’d have said, ‘No chance’.
“And had they said that in 23 years time families would be relatively more hard-up and have bigger struggles, I’d have said, ‘Impossible’.
“That was in 1995, 23 years later I’m still here. I’ve watched Ocean Terminal being built, Britannia arrive, The Shore being transformed and yet, I could take you out the door right now, flip a coin: ‘Heads we go east, tails we go west for lunch’.
“Heads, we’d have amazing restaurants within a quarter of a mile. A quarter of a mile the other way, well, I’m not sure you’d want the coin to land on tails.”
Despite the seemingly never-ending gentrification of Leith, the hipster cafes and bohemian craft shops hide a simple truth, for many of the indigenous population, little has changed, official figures show that 27% of people living in Leith, still live in poverty.
“After all the years, we are still in the same place, doing more or less the same things, with the same kind of families, families facing problems mainly due to poverty,” says Willy.
His path into youth work was an unorthodox one. Born and raised in Wester Drylaw, the son of a bookbinder and GPO engineer, Willy went to St Augustine’s before attending Napier College where he qualified as an electronics engineer.
A job at Ferranti saw him working on gyro systems for space satellites and weapons systems before he decided it was not the life for him.
It was 1986, he was 22, and he had a choice to make.
“I liked the people at Ferranti but they excited me more than the job.
“I’d been a keen canoeist at school, so I got involved with my local youth club Fet Lor, repairing their canoes.
“One afternoon the kids were watching me and I thought, ‘I’ll get them involved’.”
A messy job, he set them to work, clad in lab coats acquired from Ferranti.
“The guy who ran the place saw me working with the kids and asked if I’d like to help out with the club, that’s how it all started.”
Willy soon realised where his future lay. Leaving Ferranti he worked briefly with a drugs project, before heading off to America as a canoe instructor at a summer camp.
“You’ve got to remember, we’re talking mid-80s; heroin, aids, HIV.
“The Health Education Board for Scotland and the Scottish Community Education Council gave me a small pot of money to work with the kids in Pilton who came to Fet Lor - we made a drug prevention film and I kept a diary of the project.
“When I went off to America, I wrapped the diary up with a VHS video of the film and a note of how I’d spent all the money.
“Unknown to me, while I was in America other folk had watched the film and when I came home I was offered a post with a drugs education project called Fast Forward.
“That was an eye-opener, I was doing something I loved and I was getting paid for it.”
He pauses, before adding, “Drugs are still a feature. 30 years later, addictions are a huge issue for many the families with who we work.
“They may be more hidden now, but when your life is not that great and you have limited resources to get you from week to week, you would do anything to anaesthetise yourself against it.”
He continues, “That’s what makes me angry; how can it be that in 2018, in the Capital of Scotland, we still have folk who can’t afford food or electricity?
“Think about this. You go home tonight, switch the light on. Nothing happens.
“You’ve not blown a fuse, you’ve ran out of money and you’ve no electricity, but you know you can top your meter up in a few days.
“So you just get on with it.
“How much would that impact on your life? And yet we have some families in that situation.
“We have families here who struggle and are working. In the past you struggled when you never had a job and relied on benefits, now, even with a job you can struggle, that’s a reality.”
“The biggest rise in expenditure at the Citadel over the last five years has been food; you can’t sit down and run a workshop with kids if the last meal they had was a day or two ago.”
Over the years, the centre has attracted a number of celebrity champions who recognise the vital, often life-saving work Willy and his team do every day. “We’re doing stuff just now with celebrity chef Tom Kitchin and that is a real boost,” he says, adding, “Tom’s going to be running the marathon for us on the 27 May. Then you’ve got the likes of Hibs’ Darren McGregor, a local lad who as a 14-year-old was playing football out the back, and, of course, John ‘Yogi’ Hughes, whose mum was one of the women who helped start the Citadel.”
Despite the attention brought by these names, Willy can’t see much changing any time soon.
“I heard this lovely story,” he says, “A wee boy is on a beach where thousands of starfish have been washed up on the sand.
“The boy is carefully picking up starfish and carrying them back to the water.
“An old guy walking his dog asks, ‘Why are you bothering, there are too many, you’re never going to save them all
“The wee boy responds by picking up the starfish at the old man’s feet. He carries it to the water and gently places it in the sea and says, ‘I made a difference to that one.’
“That is what we do at the Citadel.”
Visit http://friendsofcitadel.org.uk/ for more details of the work done by the Citadel