VIDEO: Fenland teenager volunteers in prison to earn nomination for top youth award

FEW of us have witnessed death at close hand or seen life behind bars - but at just 18 years old Ella Szklaruk from Whittlesey has done both.

The teenager has been volunteering as a teaching assistant with the Friends of Peterborough Prison (FOPP), aiming to make life better for prisoners’ children and mums who look after their babies “inside”.

She had previously worked at Peterborough District Hospital as a ward clerk on the orthopaedic rehabilitation ward which treats mainly elderly female patients.

Ella’s efforts have earned her a nomination for an ROI Cambridgeshire Young People of the Year award (YOPEY) - giving her a chance of winning the top prize of �800 from a pot of �2,000 put up by sponsors including March-based firms ROI and Hutchinsons.

Ella had worked since she was 14 in shops, bars and a tattoo parlour and needed a job to see her through college. About as far removed from a tattoo parlour was being a hospital ward clerk 18 hours a week.

She said: “I did the paperwork on the ward. It was a small ward, 12 beds, and I got to know the patients and their families well. At 17 I was exposed to life and death which was a good education for me but upsetting at times.”

The hospital job lasted six months.

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As part of her course work at college, Ella and fellow students revised a welcome guide for new inmates at HMP Peterborough. This was submitted to the director of the prison.

The teenager was given a guided tour of the prison’s mother and baby unit and its women’s wing - where she now volunteers.

“At first the prisoners were wary of me and didn’t know how to react,” she said. “After a while, they were very friendly and there is now a lot of banter.”

Ella - who was singled out at secondary school for her red hair and piercings - said she could relate to some prisoners whose lives have taken a different and dramatic turn because of personal challenges during their education.

She said: “I could have easily left education at 16, not got a job and spiralled down and who knows what? Some people don’t get the opportunities.”

Ella - who hopes to study criminology at the University of Manchester - was nominated for an award by Peter Rook and Liz Knight, tutors at Peterborough Regional College, where she has just finished a BTEC in print-based media.

The tutors said: “Ella has gained the respect and admiration of all her tutors for her organisational skills, commitment and seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge.”

Ella will be bidding for glory in the sixth annual Cambridgeshire YOPEYs - a competition that has now spread across the country. For more information visit:

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