YMCA West Kent was set up in June 1990 as an independent, locally run charity delivering services to meet locally identified needs for young people. However the charity was established by merger of two strong local YMCAs – Tunbridge Wells YMCA and Tonbridge YMCA.

Since the mid 1990s Ryder House, our supported housing project in Tunbridge Wells, has provided a much needed safe haven for homeless young people in 24 self-contained flats. This project was developed by YMCA West Kent working in partnership with YMCA England and Tunbridge Wells Borough Council who recognised the need for supported housing for young men and women aged 16-30.

In 2005 we committed to the FaithWorks Charter – an initiative of Oasis Trust, YMCA and other Christian charities.

During 2010-11, we worked with YMCA England and their contractors on a much needed refurbishment of those 24 flats, and to develop extra flats at Ryder House to cope with the high demand for supported youth housing in West Kent. As a result YMCA Ryder House is now home to 37 young people – usually age 16-24 on arrival for up to two years of support.  We also opened a parent & child unit in a nearby house.

Early 2011, Head Office moved out of the top floor of Ryder House to make way for the new flats; and moved to the Pagoda centre in Tunbridge Wells. This felt like ‘coming home’ as the YMCA had originally developed the sports centre there many years before and had a head office in St John’s Road. The Pagoda centre was developed by Kent County Council as a Youth & Community Centre with two planned extensions.  A few years later we moved out of the Pagoda centre as it no longer met our needs, and Head Office re-located to YMCA Tower House, Vale Rise, Tonbridge – above one of our furniture stores; and home to our Bike Project and Counselling Service.

The first Horizon Project – offering Supported Vocational Training for young people aged 14 – 25, started in Tonbridge in 2003 after a major fundraising campaign, to deliver carpentry & joinery training. The project was set up within a timber A frame building which had been a community centre and youth club on the site of a boys club hut set up in the early 1900s by a local school master!

To add diversity, Kent County Council Adult Social Services bought places for their service users interested in using woodwork to develop life & social skills. This Fun With Wood group continues to meet every Friday all year. Several other wonderful HORIZON project centres were set up using the same model:

  • Edenbridge in 2005 for painting & decorating skills
  • TN2 in Tunbridge Wells in 2008 for electrical & plumbing skills (later changed to metalwork & plumbing; before becoming construction multi-skills before it closed in 2019)
  • Cranbrook in 2009 for carpentry & joinery
  • the first Horizon Project for Girls in Tunbridge Wells at the Pagoda Centre in 2010
  • Advanced carpentry & joinery workshop for 3 years in a redundant building in Cannon Lane, Tonbridge
  • A short term, empowerment project for a small number of SEN learners in YMCA Tower House

Horizon TN2 was located within our TN2 Community Centre on the Sherwood Estate in Tunbridge Wells. This Centre has literally risen from the ashes following a fire in the 1990s and a huge effort by the local community, statutory and voluntary partners with us to build a new centre which opened in 2007. This housed our Horizon Project and a community café, KCC library, meeting/activity rooms hosting many different local groups; as well as a very popular sports hall and changing rooms. During the summer of 2012, the projects at Cranbrook and the Girls Project were closed as they were no longer viable.  Eventually we had to close the Horizon Project in summer 2019 as it was no longer viable; and consolidate our Training & Education at Horizon Tonbridge, with more focus on Special Educational Needs [SEN] learners. Young people are still able to access training & education such as our upcycling projects at YMCA Tower House. We also offer Retail Traineeships, Volunteering, Supported Housing and Youth Work locally.

The first of our Furniture Stores opened at Goods Station Road in Tunbridge Wells in the 1990s. Since then two more were opened in Tonbridge – High Street and Cannon Lane, but these were closed so we could open YMCA Tower House on Vale Rise, Tonbridge in 2016.

In 2009 the Kent Waste Partnership awarded a large grant to recognise significant contributions to making Kent environmentally friendly.

The Furniture Stores have expanded to include office furniture, white goods; and in 2010 a UK wide service via eBay for Charity – providing amazing sales and intriguing stories. As well as being an essential community resource and giving opportunities for work experience, training and employment for residents, trainees and other members of our community, the Furniture Stores help sustain all our projects. Last but not least thanks to your generosity we are able to make a real difference when families escape domestic violence as we can often provide essential furniture when an empty house or flat is provided – just one of the many ways we work in partnership with other charities and local churches.

U-Turn was another supported training project, this time aimed at disadvantaged, unemployed people aged 19 – 60+. We led a dynamic network of U-Turn partners to deliver outreach adult learning for 100+ learners every year. Set up in 2006, U-Turn worked with many local partners across West Kent and Maidstone to provide training, confidence building, and personal skills development modules to help people back into work, further training or volunteering. We offered modules that were free, at your pace, near your place. To further develop this exciting programme, from 2011 we partnered with the London Learning Consortium who delivered a wider range of adult learning, apprenticeships and other programmes funded mainly by the Skills Funding Agency.  Slowly the funds from LSC, then SFA and ESFA reduced until this programme was no longer viable.

In 2010 we were successful in securing a major grant from the Big Lottery’s Young People’s Fund 2 to set up a youth outreach project. In January 2011 the Vehicle for Change Project or V4C was launched, with a specially adapted mobile resource unit to reach out to isolated and disadvantaged young people across West Kent. V4C was conceived by Young People for Young People. V4C was delivered by young people and young people formed the project steering group. With a few changes like the age range changing to 8-19, our Youth Work continues with a third grant from the National Lottery Community Fund.

We were also pleased that 2012 saw the launch of YAP – our Young Apprenticeship Programme which subsequently offered apprenticeships in youth work, fundraising & events and business admin over a four year period.

We set up our own in-house counselling service to support residents, trainees, youth club members, volunteers and staff; as it was so difficult to get support from the NHS, GPs or CAMHS.  After two years we opened this up to others who were not YMCA clients / staff.  Sadly in 2019 we had to put this service on hold.

In partnership with Habitat for Humanity, West Kent Quakers and Tunbridge Wells Borough Council we helped develop and now manage nine affordable flats built within the local Friends Meeting House.  These are primarily for Young People at Ryder House to move into when they are employed and no longer need our housing support – but cannot find any local housing that is affordable.  The Financial Times wrote a great article about Working but Homeless to highlight the lack of affordable housing.  The project won a special award from the Tunbridge Wells Civic Society

In 2019 we had to close two of the Horizon Project centres as funding became even less sustainable.  We were approved by the Department for Education under Section 41 of the Children & Families Act as an SPI – a specialist post-16 institution – for learners with special educational needs or disabilities.

On 1 April 2021, YMCA West Kent proudly merged with YMCA Thames Gateway Group and incorporates The Bridge Trust Project – you can read the full press release here.