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.
Venture Trust's work to improve the employability of participants was featured in The Scotsman this month.
Employability Manager Stuart McMillan highlighted the fact while youth unemployment has fallen in Scotland, thousands of young people still remain long-term unemployed because they lack the very basic life skills needed to begin working towards securing and sustaining a job.
Many young adults referred to Venture Trust have come from life circumstances where they are not given the best start. They are often dealing with one or more of the following: poverty, alcohol and drug addiction, poor family relationships, mental health issues, learning and housing issues. The majority also have had little or no work experience.
There are many agencies working to help unemployed people find work. However the individuals engaging with these other agencies already have enough 'soft' skills to enter employment and training. Who is there to help those without the basic tools necessary to begin training, studying or working? The people Venture Trust help first require significant investment to achieve greater stability – addressing chaotic or destructive behaviours to become ready for training and employment so that they can sustain a job.
There is a considerable evidence - highlighted in Government research - to suggest that being unemployed when young leads to a higher likelihood of long-term ‘scarring’ in later life in terms of pay, high unemployment, fewer life chances and poorer health. These effects seem to be stronger for younger people and those with less education. Through Venture Trust's employability programmes like the CashBack Change Cycle and our core programmes, participants are gaining the basic skills to have a better and more realistic chance of moving towards employment.
Read the article in The Scotsman here.
Levels of domestic abuse in Scotland have been described as “unacceptable” by the Scottish Government with victims often too afraid to report the abuse and seek help. The personal and social costs of domestic abuse are significant. It is now accepted that abuse is often a factor in the development of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders. The results can be loss of confidence, social isolation, the loss of a job and much more.
Cassie, just 20 at the time, was a victim of domestic abuse from her partner and suffered from the resulting trauma.
She lost her job and experienced severe anxiety and panic attacks. Cassie was unable to function like the young woman she had been before. However, she was brave enough to seek help.
Working with Women’s Aid, Cassie was referred to Venture Trust’s Inspiring Young Futures (IYF) programme. The programme, funded by Scottish Government, Inspiring Scotland, the European Social Fund and The Big Lottery Fund, is designed for young people experiencing challenging life circumstances who want to make positive life changes. Those circumstances might include involvement in offending, anti-social behaviour, history of substance misuse, homelessness or poor family relationships.
Cassie felt the programme would improve her mental health and increase her self-confidence and resilience, particularly as she needed to testify in court against the man who had abused her. Cassie also felt that she wanted to develop and build positive relationships with her peer group - including men - to help her overcome her negative experiences. Longer term she also wanted to develop a wider range of skills, and be able to go back to work.
The three phase programme includes community-based support: participants benefit from a dedicated one-to-one worker before and after embarking on an eight day wilderness journey in Scotland. Ongoing support enables participants to consolidate their new skills, boost confidence, motivation and aspirations, and benefit from opportunities in education, employment and training.
Cassie developed a positive and trusting relationship with her Venture Trust outreach worker and was soon attending one-to-one sessions, group meetings, and reflective learning experiences where her strengths were quickly identified. Cassie and her outreach worker developed a training plan tailored to her individual needs and the goals and positive changes she wanted to make in her life. During Phase 1, Cassie started working towards her SQA Personal Development Level 3 Award.
The second phase of the IYF programme saw Cassie embark on the wilderness journey. This gave her time and space away from daily pressures where she could develop skills in problem solving, goal setting, relationship building, dealing with stressful situations, managing emotions, and developing personal routines. Completing the outdoor activities during the highland winter created challenging and testing situations, in which Cassie thrived and strengthened her abilities to make choices, and manage her behaviour. The course structure also encouraged Cassie to take on and practise individual roles within the group such as morning meeting facilitator, motivator, navigator, and clean camp supervisor.
During one-to-one sessions with her Venture Trust field team development trainer, Cassie reflected on strategies she could use in these different roles and situations, and how to transfer those strategies to her day-to-day life. She was able to practise these life skills in a safe space with the support of Venture Trust staff and other course participants, whilst working on her own personal development goals and a revised personal action plan for use back home.
In the months since returning from the course, Cassie has continued to work closely with her outreach worker. She has been building her skills set through further training, work experience and volunteering, while continuing to access support from Venture Trust, and has even completed her Level 3 SQA Personal Development portfolio. Soon after return from the wilderness phase, Cassie secured a work placement with HM Revenue & Customs in Edinburgh, which allowed her to develop her existing administrative experience, as well as maintaining a stable and positive routine.
In addition, Cassie was accepted to do an intensive peer mentor training course delivered by Venture Trust and Move-On, which enabled her to learn about the role of a mentor. She now supports other young people about to embark on the IYF programme.
Cassie’s experiences with Venture Trust have also shaped her future. She is pursuing a career within the care field and has started a Level 6 Working with Communities course at Edinburgh College. And to repay Venture Trust for supporting her to change her life, Cassie is completing her college work placement at Venture Trust.
“If it wasn’t for Venture Trust, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I was in a bad place and really needed support to help me get my life back on track. Venture Trust has done that,” Cassie said.
“The course helped me build my confidence, learn new skills and do the things I want to do.”
With her newly developed skills and confidence and her engagement with her college course, Cassie is on track for her chosen career path. A path that will one day allow her to help other young people who are suffering from abuse, depression, anxiety or other challenging life circumstances.
“The impact Venture Trust has had on me, I want to have that impact on somebody else who has been in similar situations.”
Carnage and the devastation surrounded 18-year old infantryman Harry Marshall. When the smoke and dust cleared Harry was faced with two men lying dead and almost half a dozen more severely injured. He had survived a deadly explosion involving three anti-tank mines. Even though he was incredibly close to the blast Harry managed to walk away physically unscathed. But then he had to deal with the casualties alone for over an hour before help arrived.
While Harry may have escaped physical injuries from the explosion in Bosnia that killed his comrade and a local man, the mental injuries from such a traumatic experience eventually caught up with him.
Now with the help of Venture Trust’s Positive Futures programme – funded by the Forces in Mind Trust – Harry is fighting another battle to reclaim his shattered life. The Forces in Mind Trust (FiMT), is a £35 million funding scheme run by FiMT using an endowment awarded by the Big Lottery Fund.
The three phase programme provides specialist support to ex-service men and women struggling with the transition to civilian life.
“It must have traumatised me more than I noticed,” Harry says 20 years later.
In 2003 Harry was medically discharged from the armed forces. He left after having attempted suicide and bouts of uncontrolled depression. He was put on 6 months leave and then Harry was on “Civvy Street”. “Back then there wasn’t really any ongoing support for ex-servicemen,” Harry says.
Life on Civvy Street appeared to be going well for Harry. He used his previous skills as a plumber to run his own construction company and he got married.
But the Black Dog was lurking.
“In the beginning of 2012, I found myself having nightmares, crying inappropriately. I was feeling sick and horrible,” Harry recalls.
Life began to spiral out of control.
“I separated from my wife, I lost my family, the company closed down and I was in a very dark place with depression. I moved off the grid. I went to live in the woods. I feared everything going wrong in front of the people I loved.” Harry made the woods his home for 9 months. “I was alone and suicidal,” he says.
Eventually Harry found the courage to “make a call” for help. When he contacted military charity Combat Stress, it was the start of a long journey from out of the wilderness and back into society.
“I managed to get housing. A roof over my head.”
It was also the first time since that tragic day back in Bosnia many years ago that Harry was finally diagnosed with severe Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“There was a reason for my anxiety and depression. And it was caused by loss and guilt from all those years before,” Harry says.
Harry undertook 13 weeks of residential therapy for trauma. He also began volunteering with charities. “I felt like I was making progress but I also felt like I was in a safe zone. I needed to get out of the safe zone. I focussed on getting back into the community.”
This is where Harry was referred to Venture Trust and the Positive Futures programme.
“I met Clare, my outreach worker, and she has been by my side all the time. I was continuing to struggle and go through hard times but she was there and we would meet up once a week.”
The initial support and work with Venture Trust prepared Harry for his wilderness journey. It set and established his goals and ambitions. “My goal was to see if I could live back in the community with my condition.”
The five-day journey in the Scottish wilderness provided the time and space for Harry to develop new skills, gain confidence and face his fears.
“The staff were spot on. They were very understanding, non-judgemental and gave me hope. There were one-on-one sessions and the peer support was good,” he says.
Fear and anxiety had been part of Harry’s everyday life and initially the activities on the wilderness journey evoked those same feelings. “The week was broken up with activities that I would never do. The adrenaline would have been similar to anxiety so I avoided them. But with Venture Trust I could stay calm, my fear levels went down and my confidence went up. I felt safe to participate and understood I could enjoy the activities.”
Harry also thrived on the long marches or ‘tabs’ with the fully loaded kit. “I loved the walking with the kit. Others thought I was crazy but I felt feelings I had not had for a long time.”
The group of veterans on the wilderness journey came from very different military backgrounds and had different personalities, Harry explains. But at the end of the journey they were a band of brothers. “At the start it felt like we were all a bit judgemental but at the end were close with a firm bond. The end of the journey was an emotional place to be.”
Harry’s journey with Venture Trust is continuing with further one-to-one support during Phase three. It’s still a hard road but by engaging in the Positive Futures programme Harry is now armed with the skills needed in the fight to claim back his life.
He has also engaged with other organisations helping ex-servicemen and women including Driven to Extremes.
“The three phase programme is helping my recovery. My confidence levels have risen and I am building my life back up. I understand that the mental issues I have come with the job of being in the military. I need to be the one to fix it. But without the support of Venture Trust and other organisations, I would have suffered in silence."
Venture Trust's community justice programmes have been featured in The Scotsman on Wednesday, January 3rd.
The article is a great way to start the New Year and highlights the role Venture Trust can play in changing the lives of hundreds of people caught up in the criminal justice system in 2018.
Enhancing our contribution to community justice in Scotland remains a priority focus and there is much to do to address the harm caused by offending. By tackling the underlying causes of offending and working collaboratively with partners at local and national levels we aim to support those most in need of our intensive programme of personal development.
Venture Trust wants to be a leader in community justice provision. Strategically, as the new community justice landscape develops, our ambition is to ensure that Venture Trust continues to demonstrate impact in effecting positive change for those involved in offending.
We will actively engage with national and targeted community planning partnership structures seeking to collaborate to design and deliver services which are effective in tackling the underlying causes of offending.
The positive and sustained impact for men and women completing the Living Wild and Next Steps programmes, highlights the contribution these programmes can make as part of a coherent range of local services for communities in reducing reoffending and the harm caused by offending.
Going forward, the operational focus will be to ensure strong links and relationships with a variety of female offender projects that will continue under the new Community Justice arrangements. Venture Trust is committed to its work across Scotland in supporting individuals to move away from offending.
Read the article here: Locking up people short-term doesn’t work – community justice is an answer