A tough upbringing inspired Lee Donafee to go to University – and it’s a decision which means he is now transforming the lives of young people in Merseyside.

As a result of his ground-breaking work he has recently been named as Merseyside’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year and received the honour of Liverpool’s Best Investor in Children.

Lee grew up in a home blighted by alcohol abuse and domestic violence, and hoped some day he would have the chance to use his own experiences to help others. After school he tried college courses and work in spheres as diverse as football coaching and joinery, eventually ending up as a lorry driver at a waste disposal unit. Then eventually, he knew he was ready to make the leap and follow his dream of a career in youth work.

“I knew I would love to be able to help kids not go through what I had been through,” he says, “but for many years I knew I wasn’t emotionally ready to make that step.

“Then one day I thought that I was ready, and that’s when I applied for an online course at Edge Hill University. Pat Hosgood, one of the lecturers, contacted me to come in for an interview and persuaded me to sign up for a full time two-year Foundation Degree in Integrated Practice, which would result in qualifications that would enable me to work with children and young people.

“Pat and my tutors saw something in me and I didn’t want to let them down.”

Lee achieved his dream and went on to work with the local Youth Service and Young Offenders Scheme – but he realised there were still some areas of the community which weren’t engaging with these initiatives.

He then founded Merseyside Inclusion Network CIC (Community Interest Company). The aim of the organisation is to engage young people at their level, Lee works with schools, employers, higher education providers and the police.

Lee adds: “I can see where some young people are coming from – it’s not about tick boxes, it’s about working with them in their environment. We must be doing something right because we’re now working with more than 150 young people a week.”

There are four main strands to MINCIC’s work. It is educative – enabling young people to gain skills and knowledge, but also to develop the understanding, attitudes and values they need. It is also participative, so the youngsters are encouraged to share responsibility for their learning process. It is expressive, and the participants are challenged to express their aspirations through the opportunities on offer, particularly raising awareness of cultural identity, heritage and diversity. Crucially, it is empowering – encouraging and enabling young people to understand both their rights and responsibilities, ensuring they are good citizens.

The activities organised by MINCIC range from Summer activity camps and initiatives to stop gang culture, as well as unique projects like Positive Response, for those who have been involved in antisocial behaviour. Other practical projects include fishing, drama, first aid classes, hair and make-up training, and football.

“If young people ask for something, I do it,” adds Lee. “It’s all about keeping them engaged and helping them realise their potential.”