Kelly Coates has been working to improve the lives of young people and her community since she was a schoolgirl, and this week the young CEO of Projects4Change has been named the University of Sunderland Alumni of the Year 2021.

Kelly, 41, grew up in the former mining village of Dudley in North Tyneside and spent her weekends and evening helping her mum, who volunteered at the People’s Centre in the village. This passion for helping people grew into a 30-year career, which include graduating from the University in 2007 from BA (Hons) Youth and Community Work.

Kelly said: “Volunteering gave me an early positive experience of the difference I could make to others. It made me realise the basic human need for connection and how much that influences our happiness and sense of belonging.”

She began her career in youth and community work just two years after leaving Seaton Burn High School, first as an outreach worker for the Learning Disability Federation. She then worked at Choysez Youth Project in Bedlington as a special educator, and as senior youth worker at the Longbenton Youth Project.

While studying at the University Kelly volunteered at Cramlington High School and then at the Cowgate Family Support Project researching for Save the Children.

Then in 2018, frustrated by the lack of youth provision in the north east Kelly started Projects4Change. Kelly began with nothing, but with typical enthusiasm gathered 10 volunteers and began to develop a stretch of disused land into a community hub.

She said: “Developing the programme was our way of listening to young people and helping them to act on issues they care about. To create genuine change for themselves and other young people.”

The disused land in Cowgate now hosts a community garden and meeting space where young people plan projects around crafts, climate and equality, to improve their local community. The COVID pandemic did little to slow Kelly down, such is her passion to ensure that no young person is allowed to fall through the gaps.

Since her graduation Kelly has kept up a close relationship with the University, lending her expertise and support to students both co-teaching on community and youth work module, and supporting and mentoring many students and graduates. Two of the young people who have been supported by Projects4Change are now students at the University of Sunderland, in the first year of the Community and Youth Work degree.

“At the University of Sunderland I learned that education is central to who I am as a person and as a professional. My time spent here studying was like lifting a veil from my eyes, it helped me to see the same world in a totally different light.”