The St Mungo’s Peer Advice Link (PAL) helps people make a transition from supported housing to independent living. PAL is staffed entirely by volunteers with experiences of move on services themselves. After years spent in and out of prison, Seth, a PAL volunteer, has regained a sense of purpose in life through volunteering for the service. He has learnt new skills and regained confidence. Here he shares the story about his life, the role and the service.
I’m a people person. I like working with people. What motivates me is trying to support people that are in a difficult stage in their lives, whether it’s homelessness or mental health issues. I feel I need to give something back – brings back feelings of guilt from stuff done in the past.
I’ve had a really chequered past; in and out of prison for many years. This is the first time I’ve stayed out of prison. It’s been over six years. I used to use drugs. I was addicted to heroin. I was habitually using crack cocaine.
These days I just enjoy pursuing the arts, going to art galleries and just enjoying life. I enjoy my kids and my grandkids. My son, I’m really proud of him. He’s doing really well at the moment.
Before, I would never have considered volunteering – me, to work for free? Never! But then I realised it was the only way to get into this sector. It was also a way of being selfless – to give something for nothing.
‘That pivotal moment..’
There was a pivotal moment when I was in prison, in a very dark place with my recidivist behaviour. I just couldn’t see a way out. There were times when I tried to stop using drugs but there seemed to be so many triggers and pulls that always dragged me back in. I just didn’t know the way out. I didn’t know how to do it. I joined groups to find out how I could help myself.
When I was in prison, I came across a peer group mentor. When he told his story, it was very familiar to me. It was so like mine. I could relate to it. There he was on the other side of the fence – no longer in prison. He was in prison – yes – but he’d come as a visitor. He inspired me.
I thought if this guy can do it – I definitely will do it. He made me believe in myself. I started to wonder what I could do. I needed to change my life. I needed to turn things around. I thought one of the things I needed to do was to earn money some other way from how I was earning. That meant getting a job. With my criminal record and the fact that I had never worked meant nobody would employ me.
‘Without it, I would have drowned’
When I came out of prison, the first thing they did was to put me in a hostel. Then they sent me to this organisation that helps ex-offenders back into work. It just came to me to ask the lady interviewing me if it was okay to volunteer for the organisation. She was over the moon. She said she’d love to have someone like me in the organisation.
I realised as soon as I’d asked that I felt so much better within myself. I was looking forward to it, to learn new skills and just to interact with people who were like me, who I could help change slowly. That’s when I started and I have been doing it ever since.
Volunteering gives me structure. Without it, I would have drowned. I would have gone back straight into what I was doing. It gives me a sense of purpose – something to get up and do. Not just anything but to help someone. I come away feeling good about myself. It’s helped me build my confidence.
‘Helping people maintain independent living outside of institutions’
Peer Advice Link (PAL) at St Mungo’s is basically working with clients who’ve been through what I have in the past; drug issues, mental health issues and behavioural problems. What we do is we help people maintain independent living outside of institutions – because people aren’t used to the responsibilities that come with it. We take on those responsibilities for a time – for as long as they need us.
It’s mainly about helping them to maintain their tenancies. It goes a bit further, though, in the sense we help them to achieve their aspirations through education and training or signposting them to other agencies.Most people feel isolated and feel like outsiders. I know that feeling.
I think most of my peers see me as someone they can communicate with, someone they can trust, someone that understands, and someone that has empathy. I’m non-judgemental. You’ve got to be genuine. That’s not something you can speak in words. It’s something you do when you interact with people. I’d like to think that I’ve given people hope.
My plans, actually starting this week, are to apply for project or support worker positions. Anything in that field; homelessness, ex-offending, drug and alcohol issues- any of that field. I’ve been doing this for four years. And I think I’ve learnt enough and got enough experience.
Like Seth, our volunteers play an important role in supporting our clients. In 2015/16, 830 volunteers contributed 154,000 hours of their time to help us provide our services and made a significant difference to the lives of the people we work with. As the cold weather sets in, so does the rise in demand for our services. We need your help. Help us to help others. Volunteer for us.