When I was three years old my parents separated, and at that age the implications of divorce were not fully understood. Several years later my mother remarried, bringing with it a whole set of challenges for my stepdad and biological father, who both worked at Gilbey’s distillery. However, it was altogether a different matter when my mum and stepdad divorced. My mum decided to leave Harlow but, regardless of what she expected, I was staying put with my stepdad. I was fifteen, Harlow was my home – I wasn’t going to go through the upheaval of changing schools and turning my back on friends and family. With my stepdad working nights, it was down to me to look after my younger half-brother. He was as good as gold, plus being part of such a tight-knit neighbourhood made it all the more easier.
Granted, my opinion is slightly nostalgic, but I feel that the 70s/80s era was a great time to grow up. Back then Harlow had a ton of facilities to keep kids entertained. Sadly it’s not the case now, which I believe has a lot to do with the issue of kids hanging about on street corners, with crime often occurring through the ingredients of boredom, a lack of money and a desire for material things.
I finished my education, worked for an airline for a time and then spent over a year in glorious Greece. Upon my return my next career move was working for a local bus company; I was instrumental in bringing the wheelchair-friendly dial-a-ride taxi service to Harlow. This was followed by a few years in the building trade. My wife, who I’ve been with for twenty-four years, was already well known to my nan and other family members long before we got together. Not long into the relationship my nan, concerned over my wellbeing, thought it wise to give my future wife a few words of wisdom – ‘don’t let him go like the others’ – referring to the problems with alcohol that had affected my family. My dad could drink way more than an average man at lunchtime and still have capacity for more that evening. Neither a heart attack nor subsequent surgery fazed him. The moment he left hospital he was back down the pub, shunning advice given by the doctors to drink moderately – ‘I’ll do and live how I want’ was his philosophy.
It was five years ago, while in Germany, that I received the news of my father’s death. At the time I was a continental coach driver – spending close to two hundred days a year away from home. I was devastated; returning home was an option, but what was the point? It wasn’t going to bring him back. Instead I just continued working for a further four days. This was the start of my downfall, namely pushing emotions aside rather than confronting them head-on. Six months later my uncle died, bringing with it yet further emotion for the family, grief which yet again I suppressed until the build-up of pain and anguish spilled over, bringing with it the issue my nan had warned my wife about years earlier. The culmination was finding myself in front of a judge with three criminal charges to my name. I narrowly missed a jail term, my previously good character and professional job working in my favour, the end result of my actions being an eleven-month community service order. The realisation that my freedom was so finely in the balance was terrifying. I was lucky; throughout this time my wife, daughter and family stood by me. I could’ve so easily lost everything that is important to me – it was the wake-up call I needed.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I arrived at the Rainbow Services Workshop for my first day of community service. However, I was relieved when I learned it was carpentry – especially as it was something I had prior knowledge of. The workshop, among many other community-related projects, was set up around twenty years ago by Jackie Sully, the objective being to develop offenders’ carpentry skills while making items that benefit the community. Yes, the day each week I attended the workshop was payback for the crimes I committed, but I’ll admit that I actually enjoyed my time there. Even when I’d completed my community service, Dan (who was in charge of the workshop) asked if I’d come back as a volunteer – to which I agreed. I took the role seriously – undertaking many months of training and exams to become a peer mentor. In 2013, after a lengthy interview process, I was successful in taking over as workshop supervisor. I was now literally on the other side of the workbench. My background of having once been in their shoes came to many as a surprise – but was beneficial as it levelled the playing field from the start.
There’s no such thing as a stereotypical person that comes through the door. Anyone can make a mistake in life, it’s how an individual learns from their mistake that’s important. Some deeply resent the fact they’ve been issued with a community order, wishing instead they’d been sent to prison – which many view as an easier option. Even though I’m a figure of authority, I’m not there to judge anyone – I treat everyone the same. All I ask for in return is that I’m spoken to in the same way as they wish to be spoken to – with that comes a two-way level of respect. I’m also quick to explain that they’re not going to become an expert overnight. Mistakes will be made, but from those mistakes a lesson will be learned – I urge them not to give up at the first sign of failure. You’d be surprised at the vast range of items that leave the workshop – doors, toys, rocking horses, climbing frames, bird tables, shelving units and more. All we ask is that the recipient of the item makes a donation worthy of the work involved.
I see the lives of many offenders much like that of a clock face. They come here and, given time, things progress well. However, all too often they’ll hit a barrier; money, family, who knows. But when it happens they’ll often go full circle and revert to what they see as the easiest option, namely crime. Thankfully many of those who pass through the workshop keep in touch long after they’ve completed their community order. It’s something I encourage, as I become someone they can turn to for advice when times get tough – rather than just automatically reverting to type.
My job poses new challenges every day; for that reason alone, I love it. I can’t explain the feeling of satisfaction I get when witnessing high levels of craftsmanship coming from individuals who, until coming to the workshop, had little or no carpentry skills, the bonus being increased self-esteem within individuals where it’s been lacking for so long. My hope is that, like myself, they’ll turn a negative chapter in their life into a new opportunity.