Pepe Herrera knows how daunting it can be to set out on a new career. A youth worker in Spain, he moved to the town of Solna with his Swedish wife 18 years' ago ("she was clever: before then I'd only ever seen Sweden in the summer" he quips). His first few years in a new country were spent just finding his feet.
This is exactly what he supports young people to do now. Nearly a third of Solna's population are of non-Swedish origin, and the town sees increasing numbers of unaccompanied minors and refugees. The Solna Ungdomscafé youth centre is one of the key places for them to integrate, and to gain access to the information they need to establish themselves in early adulthood.
"We try to open new doors for all the young people we work with," explains Pepe Herrera. "We see a social mix: young people who come to us to socialise, school drop outs, people with special needs, refugees, youth entrepreneurs, and students. It's very important that we treat them all equally, according to their individual needs".
A surprise every day
Pepe Herrera sees his role as supporting young people in the challenges they face, and in their attempts to realise their dreams. A key part of this is simply providing information, particularly for those whose families or schools haven't already supplied it: "there are a lot of opportunities out there for young people, but they can't take them unless they know they're there. We have to show them their rights and help them open new doors."
There is, however, no one dream that fits everyone. One of the most interesting aspects of youth work for Pepe is the variety. Every day is different, and he learns something new. "I am surprised every day," he says, explaining that the people he works with never cease to exceed expectations and to set new challenges.
The power of positive feedback
Some of the people Pepe Herrera works with don't receive much praise in their daily lives. "Perhaps they're constantly being told they're not good enough," he says: "perhaps they've been engaged in criminal activity. But everyone has good in them, and it's a privilege to see that emerge over time".
Society often falls back on negative stereotypes of young people. "We talk about them from our adult perspective," Pepe says: "we adults start from all the ways they are not perfect". Instead, he tries to find something to praise in what they say and do; to offer them a smile, or a thumbs' up. It is an approach that works: even when they are very difficult elsewhere, the centre rarely experiences problems with their behaviour. "Young people are the future of Europe, yes," he says, "but they are also present in the here and now, and they can already contribute and engage if you give them a chance".
Pepe Herrera was nominated as a #Europeanhero by the European Youth Information and Counselling Agency (ERYICA) and he is passionate about the importance of the international links he has forged through them.
"When young people forge links with people like them in other countries, they find that people everywhere share their interests and worries, and often that shifts their perspective, too".