Her pioneering work in Tower Hamlets gave hundreds of poverty-stricken girls a brighter future. Now Valerie Le Vaillant is continuing her legacy in her role as Chief Guide.
The 59-year-old has been awarded the top job five decades after she joined the association as a schoolgirl.
Born in Bromley and raised in Newcastle and Aylesbury, she joined Brownies when she was seven, moving on to its sister organisation a few years later and earning highest accolade The Queen’s Guide Award.
She arrived in the recession-hit East End in 1978 during a year out from university and began volunteering at a Guide unit in Bethnal Green in exchange for accommodation at the Scout-owned Roland House.
“I found the girls extraordinary,” said Valerie of her first experiences as a leader. “Complete rough diamonds and very different from my background.
“I was absolutely drawn to them because I could see from day one what a fantastic contribution Guiding can make.”
At the same time she also volunteered for the Children’s Country Holiday’s Fund and travelled around the poorest estates in Tower Hamlets meeting families.
“I witnessed extraordinary deprivation and major health inequalities and high levels of unemployment and all the issues that go with poverty, like isolation and loneliness.
“I thought there must be something more I can do to help. So I went back and invited all of the girls of the right age to become Guides. Girls from homeless units and hostels, some were prostitutes even, that in a million years wouldn’t have thought to become one.”
By then Valerie had earned her degree and was working as an architect in the “rarified environment” of Bloomsbury by day and helping disadvantaged girls on the streets at night.
She set up a Guide unit in The Troxy in Commercial Road and ended up taking some of the members home to live with her.
“I became a foster mum when I was still single and in my early 20s as many of the girls couldn’t stay at home because of abuse,” she said. “It was probably very unusual for the times but I was young and thought I could deal with anything.”
Chief Guide at the time Dr June Paterson-Brown saw what Valerie was achieving and made her a District Commissioner which gave her the power to recruit “lots of really open-minded leaders” to help her set up units in Stepney and one in Whitechapel Mission for teenage mums.
She then joined forces with the newly created London Docklands Development Corporation on a major outreach project to help bring together existing dock communities and the new wave of residents. By the early 90s she had established 22 units across some of the poorest parts of Tower Hamlets.
The married mum-of-three adopted girls said: “Girlguiding has always been about empowering girls and enabling them to grow in self confidence.
“I could see very clearly the opportunity to really use Guiding as a powerful force for good in disadvantaged areas like Tower Hamlets.”
She went on to carry out outreach work with the Bangladeshi and Muslim communities in east London.
Today the Kent resident still receives messages from the young women she helped who have gone on to be leaders themselves or work in social services, banking and the fashion industry.
She said: “Every now and then I get a message out of the blue from a girl who has gone on to fulfil her dream.
“Girls who have developed their confidence through Guiding, which is fantastic.”
As Chief Guide she hopes to be a role model for young women and take membership from 600,000 to one million. One of her biggest challenges will be to recruit more leaders to help set up units for the 80,000 girls on the waiting list.
She said: “A lot of the world has changed but there are still big issues for girls and women to deal with. There is still pay inequality. And there are increased pressures when it comes to establishing friendships because we conduct most of our social lives online.
“But what hasn’t changed is that Guiding still allows girls to be free and grow up to be themselves.”
A packed life
Valerie has also forged a successful career herself in the male-dominated architecture and property industry.
The former director of international real estate consultants Jones Lang LaSalle and managing director at London First is now managing director at Le Vaillant Owen Consultancy .
She is also chair of Swan Housing Group which is regenerating 1,600 homes on the Blackwall Reach estate.
She said: “I was the first person from my all-girls school to become an architect. Guiding no doubt contributed to my confidence.
“Girls are very often not given leadership roles, even now, but through Guiding they are taught leadership skills and how to work as part of a team and that they can do anything.”
In 2001 Valerie was awarded an OBE in 2001 for service to architecture, and the community in east London.
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