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:
Lucy spent ten years addicted to heroin. During this time she was also convicted of theft and lost her son to care. Her life had hit rock bottom.
“I was a heroin addict for about ten years and in and out of the criminal justice system. My son went to stay with my mum because I wasn’t looking after myself, and they thought I wasn’t looking after him.”
Today, speaking from the grounds of Perth College Lucy has been clean for over 2 years; at 37 she has returned to education for the first time since she left school at 15.
“I’ve got a portfolio of certificates and I am aiming for a degree with a dissertation in addiction and recovery,” Lucy says.
She has completed peer mentor training with Venture Trust and its partner Move On to help other women caught up in the criminal justice system.
One of Lucy’s proudest achievements was being recognised with the presentation of a local champion award through the criminal justice system.
The system that could have locked her away instead provided her with the opportunity to change her life.
“My life has totally changed. I’m in a brilliant place with my son. I’ve got a fighting chance to get him home. I have my grandchildren on weekends. These are things that would never have happened before,” she says.
“I get up every day and it’s not drugs I think about. I get up and I want to go to college, I want to take the dog for a walk, I want to eat well, sleep well and be healthy.”
Reflecting on her journey with Venture Trust’s Next Steps programme which is funded by the Big Lottery Fund, Lucy explains it was the three-phases of the programme all working together that allowed her to “get her life back”.
Like all of Venture Trust’s programmes, during phase 1 there is support in the participants’ communities which usually lasts for 3-6 months. An outreach worker, in partnership with other agencies, will help the participant to stabilise their lifestyle, so that they're able to embark on (and benefit from) the wilderness phase. The participant will be introduced to other local people in similar circumstances, helping them to build a positive network of peers and supporters. Finally, the participant will receive one-to-one support to identify the choices, actions or behaviours they need to change in order to develop a more sustainable lifestyle.
Phase 2, the wilderness journey or residential, is at the heart of Venture Trust’s programmes. This setting - far removed from a participant’s everyday environment, and often chaotic life - gives people the chance to tackle physical, emotional and social challenges. These challenges are carefully designed to encourage learning and development, to help participants to increase their aspirations, confidence and motivation, and to develop a range of skills for life, learning and work.
“We were not far from Pitlochry, but it could have been a million miles away,” Lucy says. “There were no phones and we took on challenges in the outdoors. But all of these challenges and activities were giving us tools for coping when we returned to our everyday life. Dealing with emotions and anxieties and putting into place an action plan for being back in the community.”
Back in their community during phase 3, each person has access to one-to-one support from a Venture Trust outreach worker. They are supported to achieve their aims, to utilise the skills they have acquired to work towards opportunities such as employment, education, training and voluntary work.
“Venture Trust believed in me. They gave me the support and the drive and it’s changed my life.”
Watch Lucy talk about her Next Steps journey.
At his lowest point Jim Gardiner was too scared to go outside his front door.
“I might have been the only smoker who would run out of tobacco but be too afraid to go down to the corner shop and buy a new packet,” the former British soldier says. “There should be no reason to be afraid to go out your own home. There are no lions out there … in Falkirk at least. No one is dropping bombs. But there I was trapped in my own house.”
Jim was in a state of “really deep” and “dark” depression and suffering from severe anxiety. “There was absolute fear and terror, over nothing.”
The downward spiral in Jim’s life began when his family life fell to pieces after a successful military career with the Royal Corps of Signals.
“I served in the 70s and loved every minute of my time in the signals. As a young man my time in the army set me up for life. I had done a brilliant apprenticeship. I was full of confidence, full of beans and energy.”
Jim shakes his head when he recalls how he went “from that good place to being depressed, miserable and anxious.”
The death of his brother at 21, his divorce and the death of his father in a short time hit Jim hard. This was followed by coping as a single dad to two daughters and fighting a custody battle for his two sons. These series of challenges knocked him down a hole flooded with adrenaline with no apparent way to haul himself out.
“I had become unemployable even if I did decide I wanted to go out there and get a job. I was too nervous to go to interviews or sit in large groups of people. I was missing family events. A man should never be too frightened to spend time with his children and grandchildren.”
It was when Jim was at his lowest point and trapped inside the four walls of his home that he was referred to Venture Trust by its partner agency Poppyscotland and their Employ-Able programme, run with SAMH.
Jim was accepted onto the Positive Futures programme. The programme provides specialist support to ex-service men and women struggling with the transition to civilian life and is funded by the Forces in Mind Trust (FiMT), a £35 million funding scheme run by FiMT using an endowment awarded by the Big Lottery Fund.
“I met Sharon my outreach worker and we would catch up once a week. Eventually we were meeting in cafes, shopping centres and other public places. And I didn’t notice at first but gradually we were meeting in busier and busier places. Sharon began to teach me my fears were unfounded. I was getting back into the outside world again.”
The next phase in Jim’s journey was a five day wilderness expedition with other ex-servicemen. The personnel development programmes are specifically designed to help with the transition to civilian life. Individuals are taken out of their usual environment, and the outdoors are used as a catalyst for positive change, redeploying skills learnt within the military and the learning of new skills. Following the journey, veterans like Jim continue to receive one-to-one support for up to 18 months.
“As a group and individually we were improving our confidence, motivation and developing new skills to better deal with stressful, unfamiliar or negative situations,” he says. “It was a combination of an education from other ex-servicemen, the Venture Trust team and the wilderness and weather.”
The anxiety and nerves that had been holding Jim back began to loosen their grip and his confidence started to return while he was out in the Scottish wilderness.
“When I returned from the wilderness journey, I felt back to my old self again. Not somebody new. Not somebody invented. It was the full of confidence, full of enthusiasm me. Like I was when I was a young soldier.”
Jim’s time away, his participation in the personal development programmes and his commitment to making the most of the one-to-one support from his outreach worker put him in a place where he felt confident enough to apply for a job.
One of the jobs was a traineeship being offered by Venture Trust.
“I had to go through the job application and the job interview. I wouldn’t have been able to do that before the Positive Futures programme. Less than a year ago you couldn’t get me out of the front door without a crowbar,” Jim reflects.
Jim got his traineeship and now works as an admin and stores assistant at the Venture Trust National Participant Centre. His job involves prepping and kitting out fellow veterans heading out on their wilderness journey along with participants on Venture Trust’s other programmes. And often he can be found sharing an encouraging word and a cigarette with those following in his footsteps, helping to settle their nerves.
Now even more veterans like Jim will be able to get help and support transitioning to civilian life after Venture Trust was awarded a £699,384 LIBOR funding grant in November. The grant from the UK Government will enable Venture Trust to support 180 more former servicemen and women and extends the programme until 2021.
For further information visit Venture Trust’s Positive Futures programme.
Women from Venture Trust’s Next Steps programme have shared their inspirational achievements at a special event held at the Hilton Edinburgh on November 21.
The event attended by stakeholders, funders, business leaders also saw the release of an independent study of the programme.
Dr Shelia Inglis, of SMCI Associates, presented her research findings on the wider impact of the Next Steps programme. In particular, how Venture Trust is unlocking the potential of these women, building their confidence, enabling them to rebuild relationships, improving their chance to move into work, and contribute positively in their communities.
Next Steps supports women from across Scotland, whose chaotic and disadvantaged backgrounds have led to their involvement in offending or put them at high risk of re/offending.
Participants are met and supported by outreach teams in their communities before experiencing an intensive five day wilderness journey, which is then followed by ongoing community-based support from Venture Trust and other partners.
Several incredible women shared their inspiring stories of overcoming adversity. Many of them have arrived at Venture Trust from a place of vulnerability and instability, often struggling with a multitude of issues such as homelessness, addiction, isolation and involvement in the criminal justice system. The Next Steps programme utilises the outdoors as a mechanism for personal development, providing space and a safe environment to begin the road to positive change.
The programme, funded by the Big Lottery Fund, as well as a number of trusts and foundations, included the opportunity to continually evaluate and fine tune the work being done, and this event was the ideal place to share those findings. Last year, 387 females took part in Next Steps, an increase of 23 per cent from the previous year, with referrals from over 100 different organisations across Scotland. 83 per cent of women participating in the Next Steps programme are more likely to get a job, with 143 already in employment, volunteering, training, or education. And 75 per cent are less likely to re-offend, which has an impact on taxpayers, and an impact on the overloaded prison service; that is great news.
Annabelle McPherson, who has overcome alcohol addiction, said the programme had changed her life. “I had hit total rock bottom when I engaged with Venture Trust but it was the right time for me to start looking up. It was about pushing yourself, you start to believe in yourself.”
Fellow participant Kirsty Gallon also believed the Next Steps programme had turned her life around after getting caught up in the criminal justice system. “I was at the lowest point I could possibly be in ... I couldn’t see the other end,” she said. However on the night of the event, Kirsty revealed, “five weeks today I’ve been in full time employment.”
Newly announced Venture Trust ambassador, and female endurance mountain biker Lee Craigie also spoke about her adventures as an elite athlete and her own battles with the challenges and lows she has overcame.
"Listening to the women who've been through the Venture Trust Next Steps programme I was struck by the amount of bravery and resilience required to turn their lives around. Not unlike the qualities required to ride long distances by bike. We all suffer the lows but what we all agreed was it is that it's easier to dig ourselves out of feeling low if we're surrounded by supportive people. This programme offers the opportunity and, in my opinion, there's not enough of these programmes about,” Lee said.
Venture Trust chief executive officer Amelia Morgan, commented, “Tonight was about celebrating the amazing women on our Next Steps programme, and all their potential and achievements. We heard from some of the women who have courageously committed to turning their lives around. Every story reflects a very personal journey of change, with all the pitfalls and small gains of life. We have also demonstrated the impact that the Next Steps programme has on these vulnerable women, their families and the community around them. The programme plays an important role within the criminal justice system and we are very proud of the women we have supported.”
Military media channel, Forces TV and BFBS Radio visited the latest Positive Futures journey on 17 February to make a short film about the work Venture Trust is doing to support veterans. The film crew spent a day talking to staff and participants, finding out about personal stories, and the personal development work which takes place during a wilderness journey. We would like to thank Forces TV/BFBS Radio for taking the time to visit and to help raise awareness of the support that is avilalbe at Venture Trust for veterans struggling with the transition to civilian life. The film is now live on the Forces TV website.
Click here to see the short film.