Gael Bigirimana

Two Newcastle United stars are backing efforts to boost community spirit in the region by teaming up to launch an inspirational new learning programme for local youngsters.

Gael Bigirimana - who arrived in the UK as a refugee from Uganda in 2004 - and Rob Elliot, who grew up in tough South East London, were on hand for Tuesday's launch of the Newcastle United Foundation's Citizenship Programme.

Fifteen young people aged 16-19 will take part in the ten-week course to learn more about the importance of community and challenging society's perceptions of them.

The programme is the culmination of a partnership between two iconic city centre organisations; intu Eldon Square and the official registered charity of Newcastle United - the Newcastle United Foundation.

The shopping centre, which has been serving the North East since 1977, is backing the Foundation's delivery of this innovative new project which will aim to increase youngsters' ambition and self-confidence and enhance their current learning experience with Tyneside Foyer, a local training provider.

At Tuesday's launch event at St. James' Park, Bigirimana and Elliot took part in team building exercises and held a special question and answer session with the youngsters - all of whom have experienced being negatively portrayed and see the programme as an opportunity to challenge stereotypes and use their time constructively.

Burundi-born midfielder Bigirimana, said: "I know through my own experiences how important it is to be part of a strong community and how everyone has a role to play to make it work.

"Newcastle is an amazing city and an amazing community. I'm very proud to play football and to live here. It's great that the programme is teaching young people how they can help each other and how they can make it an even better place."

Bigirimana and team-mate Elliot were also joined by representatives from intu Eldon Square, who saw the results of fundraising efforts of the Newcastle United Foundation being put into action.

Phil Steele, general manager of intu Eldon Square, added: "Like Newcastle United, intu Eldon Square is at the very heartbeat of the great city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

"We are delighted to be able to support the Newcastle United Foundation to develop this important initiative, which is one of many valuable projects that the Foundation delivers that all make such a difference to young people's lives here in the North East."

The programme will take the youngsters through a variety of forthcoming activities, including a visit to a local fire station to learn about its significance to its community, a fun team-building day, and a community planning session.

By being part of a 'citizenship' team, the youngsters will then work on their own community project, giving them the opportunity to 'give something' back and create something of their very own that they can be proud of. They will then celebrate their achievements with a graduation event at St. James' Park.

Sarah Medcalf, fundraising manager at Newcastle United Foundation, said: "We are very pleased to have the support of intu Eldon Square behind the Citizenship Programme. The centre has been at the heart of the city for decades and has itself become a vital part of the community here in Newcastle.

"It is support like this which enables the Newcastle United Foundation to continue making a difference to the lives of those in need throughout the North East. We're looking forward to helping more young people to progress and to contribute to positive change where they live."