Smart Living | Features

Features | 19 Apr 2022

How Alfie the avatar helped one woman design a brighter future

The Barnardo’s Discover Digital programme, supported by Vodafone, helps young people learn new skills to help them find work. This is Charlene’s inspiring story.

It’s not every day you conduct an online interview with an animated avatar. But Alfie, a friendly purple chimera sporting wings and a fetching tail, talks to me with a young woman’s voice and nods and smiles in a naturalistic way.

“I find it easier to talk through Alfie,” says creator Charlene Smith, “but it’s still me.”

Charlene, 24, from Haywards Heath in West Sussex is yet another Barnardo’s success story.

Charlene grew up in Bristol with a British dad and a Filipino mum. It was a stable, academic and happy household. But that didn’t stop her experiencing debilitating mental health issues brought about by bullying at school. She became almost crippled by anxiety.

“I realised I needed to get some help,” Charlene says. “I was struggling to find a direction in life and I’ve been in and out of counselling.”

After A-levels Charlene felt pressured by her high-achieving academically focused school to apply for university, but after a brief period at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, she dropped out.

“The experience just wasn’t right for me,” she says.

She tried working in a shop, but a bad episode with the manager triggered her anxiety again.

“I was lost and confused,” Charlene reflects. “I was just so anxious about work.”

It was when a contact put her in touch with the Barnardo’s Employment, Training and Skills progamme that Charlene’s life really began to change for the better. The programme helps young people find work and get back into education and is part of Barnardo’s Discover Digital programme, part-funded by Vodafone.

This has helped me become more independent, just not in a conventional way my accountant parents understand!

Charlene recalls how Catherine Pardoe, a Barnardo’s Local Project Worker from Barnardo’s, “listened to me and let me take my time to explore what I wanted to do. I wasn’t even sure where to start.

“I’ve always been quite artistic, but I’d never even thought I could do a job where I could use those skills,” Charlene says.

Catherine gave her the confidence to investigate roles in graphic design, illustration, infographics and animation. And she was offered courses in computer programming, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Now Charlene is a freelance artist creating 2D animated avatars like Alfie which she uses to make content on social media – content which she can now monetise. She learned how to use Live2D software and became so proficient she began making her own tutorials, which also make her money.

“This has helped me become more independent, just not in a conventional way my accountant parents understand!” Charlene jokes.

Like many twentysomethings, she still lives in the family home, but helps out around the house, particularly in the kitchen.

“I love cooking and baking,” she says, “chocolate cake is my favourite!”

Charlene’s eloquence and confidence is testament to the efficacy of the Barnardo’s Discover Digital programme, which offers employability and digital skills, from CV writing to understanding how to stay safe online.

Although Charlene is still on medication for her mental health, she no longer needs counselling, she says, and the future seems bright.

“I’m really looking forward to solidifying my career, learning to code and proving to people I can do things, and have fun doing them!”

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