The sun is shining in Portobello.
Stephen is smiling and excited as he talks about supporting and mentoring people fighting to break free from the “grip” and “madness” of addiction and the pain and suffering addiction brings.
He has just finished a peer mentor training programme and is now qualified to help those facing the same struggles he has.
“My life is brilliant right now,” he says.
However, life was not always sunny for Stephen.
As a teen he turned to drugs as an escape from the trauma and turmoil in his life.
His addiction caused his life to spiral out of control. He lost everything that was once important to him - family, friends, his home and eventually his freedom.
After a chaotic childhood, Stephen joined the army as a 16-year-old as a way to set his life on a steady path. However, after issues with alcohol his military career did not last and shortly after he left the service his girlfriend was tragically killed in an accident.
“This was me. I had lost my chance at a career I wanted, I had lost my girlfriend, and I had lost the house. I had lost everything,” Stephen recalls.
At times he felt so lost and alone he believed life was hardly worth living.
His drug use increased and so did his criminal activities to feed his habit. After several appearances in front of the court, Stephen was eventually locked away in Polmont Young Offenders' Institution.
Prison didn’t end up being a place of rehabilitation for Stephen. He was able to get access to drugs from while he was behind bars. “It wasn’t a very nice place as you can imagine and I soon got into heroin,” he says.
For the next decade, life for Stephen was filled with “a misery inside”. Drugs, crime and homelessness were all part of his existence. He even robbed his family. For a moment a relationship with a woman appeared to give Stephen a reason to change his life. But the relationship ended and he once more turned to the only source of relief he knew – drugs.
“I started using legal highs. That’s when I really hit rock bottom. I had drug psychosis, I was running about with knives. It was absolute madness. I lost 25 kilogrammes in two months. I had to be carried out of my house and into hospital,” Stephen remembers.
“I had no will to live.”
On his release from hospital Stephen was accommodated in housing for individuals struggling with substance abuse. He was also placed on a Drug Treatment and Testing Order (DTTO). He had to undergo regular drug testing and he also began to engage with professional support services. He took inspiration from a support worker who had turned his own life around.
“I was drug tested, I cut off a lot of people who I had been associating with and with the help of medication I began to see this wee bit of light at the end of a dark tunnel.”
The same worker that had inspired him to make changes in his life referred him to Venture Trust.
Venture Trust’s programmes of personal development help people involved in the criminal justice system who recognise that they need to address their behaviours and attitudes. There is support for individuals to develop the skills and motivation to work towards a life free from crime, to become more employable, see more possibilities and build positive relationships with others. Staff work with participants in their community and also in the Scottish wilderness.
A unique phase of the programmes is a wilderness journey in the wilds of Scotland. Outdoor activity and experiential learning techniques allow participants to make positive changes in negotiating barriers, gaining control of their life circumstances, and working towards achieving personal goals. These could be re-deploying skills learnt within the military; living independently; rebuilding broken relationships; moving towards jobs, training or volunteering; and generally working towards living a healthy, safe and stable life.
Stephen had always loved the outdoors and adventure. It was what drew him to the Army all those years ago. “It sounded like my kind of thing.”
He met with an Outreach Worker and they began working towards getting Stephen physically and mentally prepared for the three phase Living Wild programme - funded by The Scottish Government and also by the Armed Forces Covenant for ex-service personnel in the Scottish community justice system. This meant cutting back on medication and making the commitment to change.
It hasn’t easy for Stephen. He has had his setbacks and a short relapse but with his determination and desire to escape “the wreckage” that had been his life for 20 years he has broken free from the grip of addiction. He is experiencing life through clear eyes and mind. With his confidence up and a desire to help others access the service Venture Trust provides, Stephen also threw himself off a bridge - with an elastic chord tied around his ankles - to raise funds for the organisation.
“It’s great to have a life back. To not feel hopeless or like you are nothing or useless. Venture Trust has helped me to become somebody again. It’s still a daily struggle at time but I now have the skills to deal with life,” Stephen says.
“My family all want something to do with me. I’m re-building relationships that were broken.
“The life that I have now is brilliant compared to what it was like. I thought I was a failure and that I was going to die in that horrible existence of addiction, prison, violence and fear.”
Watch Stephen's story below:
Venture Trust has been awarded an £18,000 grant from the Scottish Children’s Lottery to support its work with young people.
The grant from the Scottish Children’s Lottery will help fund the Inspiring Young Futures programme, which targets young people in West Lothian, Edinburgh, East Lothian, Dundee, Glasgow, Inverclyde, North Lanarkshire and South Lanarkshire, who are living in complex and chaotic situations.
Through one-to-one support, the programme helps young people reflect on the changes they would like to make to their lives, and helps unlock their confidence, motivation and life skills.
Amelia Morgan, chief executive at Venture Trust, said: “We are extremely grateful for the funding from the Scottish Children’s Lottery, which will be used to support 140 young people in Scotland.
"The grant will allow us to reach those who are struggling with chaotic life circumstances such as homelessness, abuse, isolation, substance misuse and involvement in the criminal justice system.
"Our experienced team of staff will assist them to gain life skills, work-readiness, a sense of purpose and to work towards making positive life changes.”
The Scottish Children’s Lottery was launched in October 2016 to raise money for children in Scotland, with proceeds helping to improve the lives of children right across the country and make a real difference to those who need it most.
Trustee Alan Eccles represents Chance to Succeed, which operates as a society lottery under the Scottish Children’s Lottery. Chance to Succeed supports projects that focus on employability and employment skills, helping to deliver a productive future for our young people.
Alan Eccles said: “Chance to Succeed believes that every young person in Scotland deserves a chance to be seen, prove themselves and forge a successful career for themselves.
"By supporting Venture Trust we hope to help deliver a productive future for our young people.
"Thank you to those who play the Scottish Children’s Lottery; you are helping to support the great work that our charities undertake.”
If you want to know more about what we do and who we work with at Venture Trust visit our website.
Ian is working full-time, he recently got engaged and is happy and healthy.
But life was not always this way for the ex-serviceman.
Less than a year ago, Ian was “trapped” in his spartan flat. Anxiety and fear had shut him away from society. He was unemployed, not part of his community, he was living an unhealthy lifestyle and he spent a lot of time alone at home.
Ian’s struggles with PTSD, anxiety and depression were debilitating and were not allowing him to “take part in civilian life”.
He described himself as: “Depressed, lethargic, low and apprehensive about everything.”
Ian’s poor mental health and poor decision making eventually led to him becoming caught up in the criminal justice system and being convicted. It also led him to Venture Trust.
As a result of his conviction, Ian was supported by a social worker from the Criminal Justice Social Work Services in Perth. His subsequent referral to Venture Trust and the Positive Futures programme allowed him to start the fight to change his future. Initially it proved to be a tough and sustained battle for both Ian and his Venture Trust outreach worker Clare.
Positive Futures - funded by the Forces in Mind Trust – is specifically for ex-service personnel struggling with the transition to civilian life. Forces in Mind Trust (FiMT), is a £35 million funding scheme run by FiMT using an endowment awarded by the Big Lottery Fund.
During the first few appointments with his outreach worker, Ian really struggled to leave his flat due to his anxiety. It may have only been a short walk to the meeting point, but mentally it was like climbing a mountain for Ian. Gradually Ian grew more confident and was comfortable enough to meet Clare on a regular basis, further from home and in busier places.
All of Venture Trust's programmes consist of three phases. Phase 1 involved Ian committing to regular meetings with Clare who supported him to set clear and measureable goals to work towards in the build-up to Phase 2 – the wilderness journey. The goals Ian set were “to have the knowledge that I am not the only person feeling this way”, in terms of his anxiety. He also felt he needed “a big time confidence boost” and full time employment was another goal he set his sights on for future.
The intensive five-day wilderness journey in the highlands uses outdoor activity and experiential learning techniques, allowing participants to make positive changes in negotiating barriers, gaining control of their life circumstances, and working towards achieving personal goals. These could be re-deploying skills learnt within the military; living independently; rebuilding broken relationships; moving towards jobs, training or volunteering; and generally working towards living a healthy, safe and stable life.
Anxiety and fear had been such a constant presence in Ian’s life and even a few days before going on his wilderness journey, they shadowed him once more. The thought of travelling on public transport on his own and meeting new people filled him with dread. However, support from Clare and Ian’s criminal justice worker helped him overcome his trepidation. It was also arranged for a fellow veteran attending the same course to join Ian on the train journey to Stirling for the start of the journey.
Ian described his feelings ahead of the course and after the first few days:
“I was really scared. No other word for it apart from petrified. I wasn’t sure I was going to go but I pushed myself to do this. I don’t like letting people down. Meeting the other veteran in Perth I was a bit apprehensive and cautious. I was nervous about getting the train and meeting new people at the other end. Nothing could ease the nerves. I didn’t know whether I wanted to stay. As the day went on I started to settle. I realised we were all the same with different problems in the same boat.”
The wilderness journey is the catalyst for change for many participants and for Ian it truly was.
“In the middle of Loch Katrine when in a canoe, the waves were coming in and the wind was in our face. We were going in all different directions instead of the way we were meant to be going. All we did was laugh. This is when I realised I was settled in to the group. I was quite head strong after this and determined to stay.”
Ian found the experience life-changing. “The way in which they teach is incredible. Not sitting in a classroom is such a great way to learn. The support from all the staff was fantastic,” he said.
“It’s not a boxed in area with distractions. You are out in the fresh air, challenging yourself, allowing everything to sink in. Having people to listen and there not being a time limit during the one-to-one sessions is very different to previous appointments where there is usually a time limit. Getting feedback, made me feel good. Somebody listening and asking me questions.”
While out in the wilderness, each participant is supported to design an 'action plan' for their future, ensuring they can continue on their personal journey when they return to their community.
Ian wasted no time starting his action plan. It began with things many people take for granted. Things Ian struggled to do before. Like take his dogs for a walk and go to the supermarket. He put to use the process of 'plan, do, and review’. This ensured the steps he was taking were positive and “not to beat himself” up if something did not go to plan. He was able to re-deploy skills that he had rediscovered and better review situations that once caused anxiety and stress. Soon Ian was a “different person”. “I feel good about myself, and I have not felt like this in a long time,” he said.
Clare could not believe the difference in Ian in the weeks after he returned from the wilderness journey.
“In almost five years as an outreach worker, I can honestly say that the change in Ian was the biggest I have ever witnessed. He was like a different person. He was 'on top of the clouds'. He looked happy, he was smiling, and said he is feeling ‘absolutely awesome’”.
Soon after his return, Ian proposed to his girlfriend. He successfully applied for a full time job that he loves, and is happy and healthy.
“I feel outgoing, happy in myself, confident, enthusiastic. I have faith in myself again. I don’t put myself down about things I cannot change. I feel good about myself and that’s the first time I have felt like that in four years.”
For more information about the Positive Futures programme visit our website.
“I feel like I have now truly completed my Positive Futures programme with Venture Trust and with the support of people I have grown to love over this last 18 months.”
Former serviceman Jim Gardiner was a participant in Venture Trust’s Positive Futures programme that provides specialist support to ex-service men and women struggling with the transition to civilian life. Following the programme, Jim also successfully applied for one of several paid traineeships offered by Venture Trust.
But despite how far he had come, Jim felt he had some “unfinished business” to complete as he approached the end of his traineeship. After conquering fear, anxiety and depression as part of his journey with the Positive Futures programme, Jim had one more mountain to conquer.
At 450m high, Ben A’an is a mini mountain with a big view. From the summit you can look down Loch Katrine to the Arrochar Alps. Ben Venue is closer, just across the head of the loch, while Ben Ledi is to the east. South lie the Campsies and to the north are the mountains above Crianlarich. It is one of the best views in Scotland.
“Ben A’an was the hill walk that we were to complete on my Positive Futures course in November 2016,” Jim recalled.
At the time, Jim could only manage to get a short distance up the steep track.
“Despite the encouragement and coaxing, the climb seemed much too hard and I did not complete it. I took part in everything else on the course but there was a sense of disappointment that I had not made it to the top of Ben A’an. Especially when I saw the photographs of those who had made the summit. I swore to myself that I would return one day and try again.”
Three days before Jim’s traineeship finished, he made a bid for the summit of Ben A’an. Jim was joined by fellow Positive Futures participant Mark who was with him when he fell short on that frosty November day 18 months ago. Venture Trust staff who had worked alongside and come to know Jim were also at his side.
“The walk was easy at the start and I had a great catch up session with everyone until the steep parts had to be climbed,” he said. “By then I did not have the breath to talk much. The rest stops became more frequent as my lungs screamed for more air and the sciatica started to hurt.
The whole group were rooting for me and encouraging me every step of the way. With that kind of support, giving up was not on the cards.”
The determination and self-belief Jim has gained in the past 18 months was evident as he pushed through the pain barrier and ignored burning legs. With the few final steps, Jim raised his arms and pumped his fists as the wilderness opened up and spread out before him from the peak of Ben A’an.
“The climb has put me on top of the world after Venture Trust gave me the coaching to get my life back on track,” he said.
“My unfinished business is completed. There was a great feeling of elation and accomplishment. The congratulations lifted me even higher and the view in every direction was stunning, beautiful and inspirational. I played a two verse harmonica version of Flower of Scotland and The Rowan Tree. Just because I felt so good.
“I cannot thank Venture Trust enough for the wonderful turnaround they have given my life.”For more information about the Positive Futures programme visit our website.
Venture Trust communications officer Neil Ratley ventures into the wilderness with the Inspiring Young Futures programme.
“I want to move out of supported housing and live in a flat of my own.”
“I want to get more confident so I can get a job.”
"I want to be able to provide a future for my kids.”
These are the dreams and aspirations for some of the young people participating in Venture Trust’s Inspiring Young Futures programme.
For many of us fortunate enough to have enjoyed a safe and secure upbringing with support and guidance from our family and loved ones, these dreams don’t seem out of the ordinary or out of reach as we move into adulthood. But when you have grown up without security, stability and support, dreams can seem just that.
The young people (16-21) taking part in the Inspiring Young Futures programme are often dealing with one or more of the following: poverty, alcohol and drug addiction, poor family relationships, mental health issues, learning, housing issues and involvement with the criminal justice system. The majority also have had little or no work experience. However, this does not mean they don’t have the ability to make changes to their lives and achieve their goals and their dreams. They just need the support and opportunity and to be offered the chance to see themselves differently.
The programme - funded by The Big Lottery Fund, the Scottish Government, the European Social Fund and Inspiring Scotland - aims to help disengaged young people, to develop sustainable lifestyles and reach a point where they can apply and get a job, engage in education, training and volunteering. The programme consists of community-based support both prior to, and after, a wilderness journey, all aimed at helping participants to develop the skills necessary to work towards those positive destinations.
I have just spent a week camping, hiking and taking part in personal development activities in the wilds of Scotland with a group of participants and staff as part of the wilderness journey phase for the programme.
The “Beast from the East” – an artic weather bomb - has gripped Scotland in its frozen embrace of snow, ice and blizzards. But with a slight slackening of the icy grasp, five young people from the suburbs of Glasgow, are braving the elements and challenging themselves to gain the skills that will enable them to change their futures in the hills above Loch Rannoch.
The frozen ground, pine trees, and toilet shovel are a far cry from the suburbs they come from. It’s with a mix of wide-eyed bewilderment, fear and for some excitement when they are told the small snow-covered tents will be their home for the next few nights.
Earlier that morning the Venture Trust development team had gathered at Stirling railway station to meet the individuals arriving on the Glasgow train. It was a grey day, a constant drizzle was falling and five young people all with their hoodies drawn up shuffled along the platform. Confidence and self-esteem are often in short supply for those engaging with Venture Trust.
Phase 2 of the programme – the wilderness journey – starts with a group meeting at Venture Trust’s base on the outskirts of Stirling. It’s where introductions are made and the participants discuss and draw up conditions for the course with the aim to create a ‘safe space’ for themselves and staff. Things like a ‘social contract’ for the group and ‘conditions of attendance’ are reinforced and agreed upon. These ground rules come from the group, rather than being a set of rules forced upon them. Combined with the choice to remain or leave, an element of ownership is given to the group, encouraging responsibility and appropriate behaviour.
Initially it takes coaxing from the team to get responses and contributions from the members of the group while they continue to adapt to their new surroundings and the people they will spending the next week with.
The next task elicits a much more profound reaction. Each young person is asked to say goodbye to their mobile phones for the duration of the weeklong journey.
This is the start of the process to leave behind the distractions from home and the environment that makes it so hard to break out of their current cycle. The lack of familiar distractions (TV, computers, phones etc.) provides space to think and relax.
As night approaches at base camp, the first real task for survival is cooking food in the freezing conditions. On the first night, this involves boiling water and cooking pasta. The staff have pre-prepared the Spaghetti bolognaise but for the rest of the journey each person will have to carry and cook their own meals.
I’m given my trangia stove, cooking pots and a fistful of pasta. Helen, one of the development team members, takes us through the process of setting up and using our stoves. Tasks like this, along with setting up tents, effectively using the clothing and equipment we are issued are aligned to Experiential Learning.
The wilderness provides a great setting for experiential learning - ‘learning through reflection on doing’. After being shown how to do something, participants need to self-evaluate the effectiveness of their own actions in future. None of us starve and the “Beast’s” bite seems less intense with a belly full of hot pasta. Before crawling into the tents for the night, we go for a short walk and then return for a group session working on some personal development skills. There is also a call to fill various roles – camp leader, navigator, time-keeper, energizer, morning meeting and end of day review facilitators.
It’s sleeting and close to zero degrees when we are woken early the next morning by the expedition and development team. The smell of bacon is wafting on the fog. For some it’s been a tough initiation to sleeping in the outdoors. But after surviving their first night in the wilderness together, there is also the first real signs the group coming to accept and respect each other as individuals. These early morning calls will help prepare individuals for establishing a routine back home to get to work, college or training.
Each day starts with a group meeting and those with morning roles fulfil their obligations or lead the sessions. Themes for the day and goals are agreed and established. This is followed by a team building exercise before the participants engage in a one-to-one meeting or small group session with an allocated development worker.
As the sleet slowly turns to rain, the order comes to break camp. We are given a demonstration of how to take down our tent, roll away our sleeping bag and pack our backpack. There is a mix of silent stoicism from some participants under the strain, others bear a grimace of glum acceptance and from others there are complaints about the burden they are being asked to carry.
After several hours of trekking we take shelter under the creaking bows of the Caledonian pines. The soft green moss and pine needles are a comfortable seat to rest weary legs.
When it’s time to get moving, it’s difficult going. The snow lies thick on the ground, at times the path climbs steeply up among the trees and it’s cold. The worst of the “Beast from the East” may have passed but there is still a whip in its tail. The hardships these young people are facing now and the learning and development strategies they are being asked to complete in the wild will help them back in their communities and in the face of the challenges waiting back home.
Individuals work on skills such as establishing trust, personal boundaries, consequential thinking, problem solving, dealing with challenging situations, and responsibility and accountability. Each participant is supported to design an individual 'action plan' for their future, ensuring they can continue on their personal journey when they return to their community.
With the whiteout turning to a murky darkness and temperatures plummeting we find a clearing above a stream to set up camp. The deep snow means we need to dig out an area to pitch out tents. Armed with the skills we have already learnt we work fast to put up our shelters before cooking a warm meal and completing more activities.
It’s another frozen start to the day. But spirits in the camp seem buoyant. There is a sense of pride and determination among the young participants. They’ve survived an overnight blizzard and whatever creature left its strange footprints in the snow. In the morning meeting, new goals are set and there is encouragement and animated discussions between individuals. A far cry from the silence and reluctance to talk to each other on the first day.
On the banks of a small stream deep in the Black Wood of Rannoch our expedition stops for lunch. The wilderness journey is drawing to a close. The development team members gather the troops together and hand them each a sheet of paper. Armed with their parchments, they are sent off to read the sheet in private. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
There is a sparkle in the eyes each individual, a smile on their lips and a visible puff of pride in their stance and demeanour. For some the sparkle turns to tears and there is a slight quiver on their lips. These are tears and quivers of pride resulting from the positive praise they have just received. For many young people who participate in the programme this kind of praise, the receiving of compliments or encouragement has been very rare or non-existent in their lives.
Descending from the higher ground along a gorge towards the shore of Loch Rannoch, the sun escapes from clouds. The light dapples through the branches of ancient pines and reflects off the moss on the forest floor. The complaining heard from many at the start of the journey is gone. There is chatter in the air, laughing and words of support for each other.
The wilderness is a catalyst for change.
Each participant will be supported to design an 'action plan' for their future, ensuring they can continue on their personal journey when they return to their community. Here, they will continue to be supported through regular meetings with Venture Trust's outreach teams. The outreach teams help participants continue to develop and apply their new skills, access other specialist support services, and work towards employment, training, education or voluntary work. Each one of the young people I shared this journey with has a greater chance to make and sustain positive changes in their lives.
“I want to move out of supported housing and live in a flat of my own.”
“I want to get more confident so I can get a job.”
"I want to be able to provide a future for my kids.”
With hard work and support from Venture Trust and our partners, these dreams can become a reality for many young people who thought they were out of reach.