Using lived experience to become an apprentice at St Mungo’s

    This National Apprenticeship Week, Andrew a Support Worker at St Mungo’s shares his experience of recovery and being a part of our apprenticeship scheme.

    I moved to London late 1980s as a young gay man from Blackburn in Lancashire. My childhood had been very lonely, part of a large dysfunctional family in a town where I experienced homophobia. Once in London I found what had been missing from my life, I could be myself and be with others like me. But in the early 1990s, I contracted HIV. At this time, there was still a lot of stigma attached to it. I became outcast from the community I had found and my loneliness returned. A friend of mine introduced me to ecstasy, and a culture of extreme partying. I thought “why not?” as the diagnosis I had been given came with a life expectancy of two years.

    But with medication for HIV becoming more advanced and understood, the two years passed quickly. However I did not stop the partying. This consumed my life eventually leading to an addiction to stronger drugs. I felt there was no hope.

    Road to recovery

    Several years ago I started a long journey of recovery when I was fortunate enough to secure a place in a rehab centre. I then started a volunteering role at a local Community Centre in Westminster. During my time there, I was able to develop new skills, such as how to communicate properly in a world outside of what I had been used to and the importance of being reliable, punctual and accountable. Over time I gained the trust of the management and was given a lead role in providing the ‘Hot Meal Service’ at the centre. I was soon inducting new volunteers and started to see how my lived experience could be used positively to help others.

    I was being supported through my recovery by the Terrence Higgins Trust. My support worker there suggested that I try their ‘Back to Work scheme and I saw this as the perfect opportunity to move from volunteering into a full-time job.

    Whilst working with my mentor at Terrence Higgins Trust, I applied for the apprentice Drug & Alcohol Support Worker role at St Mungo’s. The news that I had been successful in my application was overwhelming, but very exciting. I was going to be able to sign off benefits for the first time in my life, I was becoming an active member of society. I was offered an opportunity to take a position within the team at a St Mungo’s mental health service in South Camden.

    Experience of my apprenticeship

    I had very little education as a child, always being reminded that I was thick and I would never amount to very much. This was a cause of some anxiety for me in regards to the studying part of my apprenticeship at St Mungo’s. But I had tutors that would support me throughout the apprenticeship, as well as in subjects such as Maths & English. At first, I thought there was no way I could manage this but I was given support, time, encouragement, and understanding.

    I remember at my first team meeting, being introduced as the new apprentice, I was so nervous. But the team were great, I was made to feel a part of the work straight away and I soon found my confidence.

    I even ended up enjoyed the studying part of the apprenticeship completing with a Pass. On completion of my apprenticeship, I was offered a full-time position at a St Mungo’s high support service in Westminster. I really enjoyed my experience there, helping residents with their mental health and substance abuse. This role allowed me to learn and grow, and when the service was being decommissioned, I worked with a great team and external parties to ensure that all the residents were appropriately rehomed.

    I was then offered my present position as Support Worker. I currently have ten clients that I’ve been supporting throughout the Covid-19 pandemic in different ways; moving on into independent living or helping them make their first steps into low support living away from the streets.

    My apprenticeship at St Mungo’s has allowed me to become the support worker I am today, using my lived experience to support others and better my own life. I am very thankful for the experience.

    Find out more about the St Mungo’s apprenticeship scheme here.

    The value of apprentices at St Mungo’s

    In this blog to mark the end of National Apprenticeship Week, our Head of Volunteering, Apprenticeships and Placements, Iver Morgan, reflects on the value and skills that apprentices bring to St Mungo’s and a new Social Work Apprenticeship launching later this year.

    More than 200 people have successfully completed St Mungo’s award winning Apprenticeship Scheme, since it began more than a decade ago. With National Apprenticeship Week drawing to a close, I have been reflecting on the last ten years and thinking ahead to the launch of a new Apprenticeship later this year.

    Our Apprenticeship Scheme is for people who have lived experience of using support services. This could be that you have slept rough or have lived in a hostel, or you might have suffered from mental health issues or spent time in custody.

    Our Apprenticeships are 15 months long, where you work in placements across the organisation for five days a week. While 20% of your time will be geared towards learning, giving you time to train and study for qualifications. Our Apprenticeships are currently in either adult social care or business administration

    The scheme is a perfect opportunity to learn practical skills in the workplace whilst gaining a qualification and boosting your confidence. The qualifications are offered by Opps Development, a training provider, which tailors the support they offer to ensure it meets the needs and ambitions of our apprentices.

    Many of our apprentices have had a complex past and their own individual battles. Through our Apprenticeship Scheme, people are able to use their own lived experience to support others to achieve their goals.

    One of our current Social Care apprentices is Jack. Before he started he thought: “given my past I never thought I would ever be able to do the role I do.” Now, coming to the end of his qualification, Jack says: “I love the fact that I’m helping people get their life back on track. I wish I did this years ago!”

    When I look across the organisation, I see former apprentices throughout our services and central departments. Some are now deputy managers or managers, it gives me an immense sense of pride to see the journey they have been on. All of our apprentices bring huge value to our work, not just to clients but also to us as their colleagues. The best apprentices are the ones who ask questions. It helps create a learning cycle, so that staff can assess their work and continue to improve the positive impact our service can have for clients.

    That learning is important: supporting professionals and those in the wider community to understand the causes and consequences of homelessness is vital in helping our clients to recover.

    Another way of improving this understanding among professionals is through our student placement scheme, which involves 250 social work and nursing students every year working with our clients. These placements are a fantastic opportunity for students to gain first-hand experience of working with people with a mix of strengths, vulnerabilities and needs.

    The involvement of social workers at St Mungo’s can only ever be a positive. That’s why I am delighted that the Apprenticeship Standard for Social Work has been approved and we will be offering our first St Mungo’s Social Work Apprenticeship later this year. These three year Apprenticeships will be open to our staff who at the end will achieve an honours degree in social work. It will help our staff develop new skills and understanding but, more importantly, we know that these skills and expertise will help our clients to move on from homelessness and live fulfilling lives.

    Find out more about our Apprenticeship Scheme and how you can apply.

    ‘Beyond my wildest dreams’

    Life is good. There have been times in my life when I hated life. There was lots of despair. Now I have everything I want in life. It’s not been given to me. I have worked for it. Today, I love life.

    I am on an 15 month apprenticeship programme with St Mungo’s Housing First Service in Brighton. But life was not always like that.

    I come from a long background of substance misuse – 30 years approximately. I have had many issues with the criminal justice system, courts, prison, etc. I’ve had problems with my health including, blood clots, ulcers and pulmonary embolisms. I came to a place in my life around nine years ago where I had just had enough. My health was bad. I was told that if I carried on I would only live for six months. At that point, I was also looking at a long prison sentence. When I went to court I was given a chance with Drug Rehabilitation Requirement (DRR) Order. With this, I was able to become substance free in the community.

    ‘I am a strong believer in remaining positive’

    After successfully completing the Order I got involved in recovery, fellowships and a mentoring program. I did voluntary work for a charity for people with learning difficulties. By keeping myself busy, being positive and constructive, I maintained my recovery whilst giving back to others and the community.

    I got my council flat five years ago and subsequently received a secure tenancy 12 months later. There has been loss of family members and general difficulties of living life on life’s terms, however, I am a strong believer in remaining positive and looking at things in a positive manner. By having an outlook like this, my life remains healthy and fulfilling.

    ‘Part of a team and something special’

    I have been involved with St Mungo’s for many years both as a client, volunteer mentor and paid locum worker. Although I had been a locum with Brighton Housing First for over a year and part of the team, I never had full access to St Mungo’s’ systems and I was not permitted to perform some duties alone.

    The Housing First approach is based on helping people with complex needs to secure a tenancy first along with a long term and flexible package of support around them.

    I applied for a Housing First worker position in July 2016. I was invited for an interview but I was not successful – I had not prepared myself at all. I had never been interviewed formally before. Then I subsequently applied for the St Mungo’s Apprentice Programme, which would give me an opportunity to continue working in a job I enjoy and gain a recognised qualification. The interview was less daunting than the first one, however, I attended fully prepared, although still quite nervous.

    I was notified the following day of my success at getting the position of Apprentice Housing First Worker. This really made me feel part of the team and part of something special. Now I have an employment contract so I feel more secure.

    ‘I get a lot of fulfilment seeing people progress in life’

    I applied to become an apprentice because I wanted to help other people like me. I have knowledge and the ability to work with and empathy towards the clients because of my experience. I also applied for selfish reasons – it makes me feel good about myself. I get a lot of fulfilment in seeing people progress in life. I like to help people ‘tread their path’. I want to help them get to where I am. Everybody’s recovery is different but I can show them how I did it.

    This is a career that I have tried to get into since I came into recovery as I enjoy helping people to achieve their goals and rebuild their lives. I prefer working directly with clients and feel lucky to have such a supportive team around me.

    ‘My clients have been let down so many times in life’

    My clients have multiple complex needs, mental health illness, distrust and serious abandonment issues. They’ve been let down so many times in life. One of my clients wouldn’t let me into his house before. I would bang on his door for 40 minutes but he wouldn’t open the door. Now he waits for me with a cup of tea when I go to see him.

    I thrive on challenges and have the tools and knowledge to deal with any situation that arises.

    My life today is amazing. I live in Brighton. I have a flat with a secure tenancy and a huge network of people I can depend on. I work within substance misuse services helping people like me. Life is good.

    When I first came into recovery I was promised a world beyond my wildest dreams. Most people would associate that with mansions, planes, Ferraris or money. That’s not me – I have peace of mind, a safe home, a pound in my pocket, food in the cupboard and good friends – that’s a world beyond my wildest dreams.

    Don’t give up the fight. Do the right things and the right things happen!

    How you can help people who are homeless

    If you’re interested in the work we do to help our clients and want to do more, here’s how you can get involved:

    Please visit our website for information on the St Mungo’s Apprenticeship Programme.

    There is a lot happening at St Mungo’s. Sign up to our e-newsletters and we’ll email you regular news to keep you up to date with everything that is going on.


    “Its been the best year of my life”

    Image: Kevin Farrell, client of St Mungo's

    At the 2017 Skills for Care Accolades St Mungo’s has won Best Employer Support for Apprenticeships. As National Apprenticeships Week draws to a close, Kevin reflects on how his year as an apprentice has changed his life.

    I see myself as a holistic therapeutic practitioner. I love art and yoga, I enjoy photography. I enjoy getting involved in projects, working in collaboration with other organisations and charities. I’ve done stuff with Café Art and HAGA.

    I’m a people person, I enjoy seeing people move forward with their recovery. I am a person with lived experience of homelessness. Great fulfilment for me is when I see people climbing up the ladder and moving forward with their lives.

    ‘Surviving by any means possible’

    Life was very chaotic for me from a young age. I come from a large Irish family. I lost my mum to cancer when I was 12. From then I was out of control.

    I didn’t really have any discipline, I have five older brothers who were no angels. I wasn’t living in a good environment. It was not uncommon for a 12 year-old to smoke cannabis. That was just the environment we came from.

    We weren’t a rich family but we survived by any means possible. I’m not proud of the things I did. I know a lot of it was done in survival mode. I never intentionally went out to hurt anyone, and I never did. I sold drugs for a number of years. I got caught and I did a prison sentence. I’m not ashamed of my past.

    When I came out of prison in 2009, I was housed at a St Mungo’s hostel in Central London. I was there for six months.

    I was not abstinent, still messing about in illegal activities. From there, I was rehoused through St Mungo’s rent deposit scheme.

    ‘Living in the fast lane’

    I held it together for a couple of years. I went back to work in the catering field. I again became dependent on alcohol and started to use Class A drugs. Then I went to rehab again.

    I used to work in management in the catering field. That kind of environment is fast paced. People tend to get involved in a lot of activities with drink and drugs. That’s just the way it was for me, for many, many years.

    I’d been at it for quite a number of years in the fast lane, working for a high end catering company and working sometimes 60 or 70 hours a week. It took its toll. My only means [of coping] was indulging in bad behaviour, which had an impact on my mental health – not surprisingly.

    ‘Out of the darkness’

    In 2012 I came out of the darkness. I’ve not had a drink or drug since. I remain abstinent.

    When the opportunity for the Apprenticeship came up, I was told by the people I was volunteering for, “Kevin, it’s about time you got a job. You’ve done everything you need to do now”. I’d done a lot of volunteering for St Mungo’s for two years, in hostels and as the lead service user representative. I had completed a psychology qualification, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Smart Facilitative training. I’d also had a number of years of sobriety under my belt.

    I was really primed, I came for the interview and it happened all in a flash. Then I was offered the role.

    Being an apprentice gave me an opportunity to gain experience in the drug and alcohol recovery field, which is what I’m specialising in. Over the year, I was running groups and holding one to one sessions with clients. I held a client caseload of up to 15 people, it’s been really full on.

    ‘More than I expected’

    The St Mungo’s Apprentice Scheme is the best thing to have ever happened to me. It’s been a lot more than I expected. The amount of support I received from St Mungo’s is massive. Massive!

    I work with other people in the same field from other organisations, they don’t get the same level of support. Here you get line managed very well.

    As an apprentice, you attend ‘Reflective Practice’ – an opportunity for a group of apprentices to get together, sometimes with a therapist, to ‘offload’.

    You get rid of the good, the bad and the ugly in a confidential environment. It is an opportunity to soak and air views, especially when I had been struggling and needed help.

    In the early days I was struggling with some of the IT. I took that to reflective practice and some of the apprentices helped me out. They pointed out that I was not silly.

    ‘I’ve had a positive impact’

    I’ve not reverted back to my old life because of connecting to people; socially, spiritually and physically. I started a relationship with my partner, which is very special to me.

    There’s also fear – fear of going back because I know where it took me – to a really dark place but I know my biggest asset is my lived experience.

    I use that experience to empower other people that I work with. I couldn’t envisage going back to that life again. I enjoy being me. I enjoy my life too much now.

    I feel a lot of serenity around my life now. I still have my bad days, don’t get me wrong. I still swear and bark every now and again but in general I try to lead a peaceful life and empower people.

    I’ve just finished the year’s apprenticeship with St Mungo’s Haringey Recovery Service. It’s been the best year of my life. I’ve had a positive impact. Now I’m going to help run Shine, a social enterprise in Haringey.

    To find out more about St Mungo’s apprenticeship scheme click here.

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