After listening to families whose children have been murdered through street violence, I found it impossible to ignore their pleas for help in finding solutions to a problem which has blighted too many lives.
I often reflect on the bravery and courage shown by Barry and Margaret Mizen, whose teenage son Jimmy was murdered in 2008. The Mizens are convinced as I have been for the past 40 years that part of the solution is in providing more structured activities for young people.
In my opinion, tragedies such as the murder of Barry and Margaret’s son are the extreme result of too many young people no longer guided through a rite of passage; young people who would benefit from the guidance and help of organisations such as the Guides, Scouts, cadets and other youth organisations. However, these are all groups which are hampered in their growth by a lack of adult volunteers.
Speaking with Barry and Margaret and members of Families United a group for those parents whose children have been torn away from them and killed in such appallingly brutal ways as a result of gang violence made me even more determined to start a long-term leadership campaign.
This would provide many more opportunities for all young people to acquire a sense of constructive purpose, motivation and service, and also build on a collaborative initiative with youth organisations, called Youth United, that I started four years ago.
This kind of initiative can help to provide a constructive team-based substitute for destructive gang violence, so that no more families like the Mizens should have to suffer such untold misery in the future.
This week at Buckingham Palace, I am joining the leaders of Britain, including the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, plus 50 young people, to launch a pledge campaign called #iwill through a collaborative youth initiative called Step Up 2 Serve.
I believe that such a long-term campaign, which is supported by all sectors of society and involving faith and political leaders, education, business, trade unions and the voluntary sector, has a unifying vision.
That vision is that all of us, from all walks of life, will ‘step up’ and pledge, at #iwill, to help young people take every opportunity to be of service to others.
At present, just 29 per cent volunteer regularly, although more may do so informally. The campaign proposes that we should support and inspire 50 per cent of all those aged between ten and 20 to take part in practical action in the service of others by 2020.
I am so glad that the main political parties and youth organisations and businesses are saying ‘I will’.
I know that young people have an immense contribution to make to our society, but I have long believed we are failing to do enough to unlock their talent and unleash their energies to help tackle all sorts of challenges.
Young people are the solution to so much and yet, too frequently, they are seen as the problem.
In the nearly 40 years that I have been supporting youngsters, many of them have told me they also want the chance to put something back and assist their communities.
If you think that all over our country there are thousands of lonely old people who need company, younger children who need alternatives to hanging about on street corners, crucial environmental work that needs doing, and local causes that need espousing, it is not difficult to see how any small voluntary contribution can help.
As I travel the length and breadth of our land, I am fortunate enough to see marvellous examples of youth-led social action. I am incredibly proud of all the young people I meet who are already engaged in such action because through this experience they can then go on to motivate others.
In Ayrshire last month, I presented members of the first Police Cadet Unit in Scotland with their certificates, and was enormously encouraged to hear of the large numbers who wanted to join through their schools.
These examples and countless others give me hope that we can achieve our goal of Step Up 2 Serve.
While much is done by young people through their own efforts or through great youth organisations and inspirational teachers, we need them to start volunteering at a younger age, and embed the habit of community involvement in those vital years when they move from primary school to secondary school.
To do this effectively, we must enlist thousands more adults to support and motivate younger people in their social action, and to encourage those who have already been involved to engage and lead others.
Young people need to be recognised and celebrated for their progress as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award does so successfully and we must develop many more opportunities which stretch and challenge those in their service to others.
I remember a speech I made in the House of Lords in the early 1970s. I spoke about the need for young people to be of service to others, to face challenging situations, and to learn and reflect on that experience.
I myself was a volunteer coastguard as well as spending time in the cadet unit when I was at school and I remember what a difference that made to me at that age.
Some 25 years ago, I set up the Prince’s Trust Team programme as a pilot community service scheme, and that confirmed to me that volunteering to help others brings immense benefits to young people, as well as to the whole community.
The young people learnt social skills, built up their confidence and self-esteem and realised perhaps for the first time the contribution they could make to those who needed assistance, and the satisfaction they could feel from service to others.
In total, 160,000 young people have completed this one programme run by my Trust, and thousands more each year clear derelict sites, create community gardens, help disabled children or produce films which warn of the dangers of gun and knife crime.
My Trust will double the number of young people volunteering as our pledge to the Step Up 2 Serve campaign.
The motivation, commitment and sense of purpose the volunteers develop is truly inspiring and makes me enormously proud of what young people can achieve. I am equally encouraged to hear that the National Citizens Service, established now as a ‘rite of passage’ programme for 16-year-olds, is having the same effect for many young people, and so we now need to develop the journey earlier on in their lives.
The CBI recently reported that employers need young people who are optimistic, determined and emotionally intelligent and research shows that youngsters who take on challenging volunteer activities have all those character traits and virtues.
I believe the business world has a vital role to play too, not only by making it clear that it values this in future recruits, but also by actively supporting employees as adult volunteers. And so I hope that many companies will pledge at #iwill to support Step Up 2 Serve.
I need hardly say that I am particularly delighted that my daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge, has helped to swell the ranks of much-needed Scout volunteers during her time as an occasional volunteer for the organisation, since enrolling many more adults as leaders is the greatest need for so many of our youth groups.
And in this sense I would hope that we might also build on the wonderful volunteering spirit and the contribution made by so many to the success of last year’s London Olympics.
I wanted to convene and launch this campaign as I reached my 65th birthday in order to support all those who are engaging young people to say ‘I will’, and to underline the vital contribution youngsters can make with their service to the community.
On Thursday, the campaign will announce and encourage pledges from organisations and individuals all over Britain.
I can only hope that Mail on Sunday readers will be moved to consider what their personal contribution to the Step Up 2 Serve campaign could be and perhaps pledge their support at #iwill.
Find out more at www.stepuptoserve.org.uk