Joanna 270X270

Head of Private Clients
Charities Aid Foundation

T: +44 (0) 3000 123 234
E: jwalker@cafonline.org

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A VISIT TO 'A BAND OF BROTHERS', BRIGHTON

A Band of Brothers (ABOB), supported by our Private Clients, invited Kelly Cox and I to Brighton to meet Nathan Roberts, Chief Executive of ABOB, to find out more about what they did and how their programme works.

THE JOURNEY

Picking us up from the station, Nathan drove us out of town to a beautiful rural spot on the Downs where ABOB is originally based. Other ABOB centres involving their model and programmes include Sussex, London, Oxford and Cornwall. Parking up outside their headquarters, a white Portakabin with the ABOB logo stenciled on the side, Nathan proudly announced that this cost them the princely sum of £100 a month to run. Stepping inside their tidy office, decorated with a vase of flowers in our honour, we met Dan Hartley, Head of Operations, and over a cup of tea the two men began to tell us a little bit more of what ABOB were trying to do.

The stories were heart-wrenching. Stories of young men growing up in families where nobody worked and domestic violence was extremely commonplace, where their male role models, if any, were absent fathers, stepfathers who came and went, and how they lived in communities where the only emotion young men are allowed to feel is anger. Where anything else was seen as weakness and mental health was often fragile and ignored, as well as the lack of opportunities and aspirations these young men had. It is easy to see why frustration and lack of purpose can take such a destructive path. If anything, the men’s ability to survive their circumstances is sometimes miraculous.

But Nathan, Dan and their group of committed colleagues and army of volunteers refuse to accept that. They refuse to stand by and let these young men be failed, and they recognised what was missing and came together to establish ABOB. Around the walls of the office were pictures of groups of men, all showing a clear bond and smiling at the camera at the end of the intense weekend experience which kick-starts the relationship the young men have with ABOB.

All men at ABOB have had some dealing with the criminal justice system and once referred to ABOB by the probation service, the young men are literally taken blindfold to the woods. In a remote wild location on a Friday afternoon, the blindfolds are removed and the young men find themselves in a group of ten, surrounded by a circle of 30 older men. Nathan explains what they are here to do and the banter starts early – "you can’t have a job then, if you’re here all day on a Friday." The volunteers go around the circle, each giving their name and what they do – "I run a building business", "I'm a manager in a PLC", "I own a gardening firm", "I'm a retired teacher", "I'm a retired policeman"… (that raises some eyebrows). Immediately, the young men start to realise that actually they are people who are prepared to sacrifice their own time, an entire precious weekend, to help them – the trust then starts to build.

THE PROGRAMME

We didn’t talk too much about what happens on those weekends, except that it is an intense experience with a shared endeavour and it’s hard work. From 7am until midnight on Saturday and Sunday, it has to echo the lives they currently lead. “It’s intense because it has to be” says Dan, “if these young men are living dangerous lives, an experience that doesn’t match that intensity and adrenaline will have no impact.” By the end, the participants are exhausted but from the looks on the faces in the photos, something has changed. Something has started to shift in their thinking.

From here, the young men start to work on a regular basis with their mentors that they choose themselves and the group, to build their resilience, sense of self-worth and to enable each young man to mature. ‘You are loved for who you are now’ is a motto they use, to remind the young men that they don’t have to change to be loved – they are worthy of love as they are. Building self-esteem takes time, particularly when Nathan tells us a young man’s brain doesn’t fully develop until they are 25 years old. Only then is the brain developed to fully understand all the consequences of their actions and choices. It can take years but their programme of intense mentoring, regular, reliable and non-judgemental groups every week ensures that for the young men who are able to take part, the results are incredible and sustain.

The regular group meetings act as a direct support and an informal safety net for the young men; they can come and go as they please, or even need. Dan told us of one young man who turned up to a group meeting and sat down as if he knew everyone. When the group asked him about himself, they realised it was a young man who had last attended four years ago and had just returned from prison. “The criminal justice system can take so long to bring allegations to court that some of these men have the threat of a return to prison hanging over them for up to two years. When you have started to make real progress with them in that time, it can be hard to swallow. But at least we are here when they come back.”

MEETING THE MEN

It was then time to meet the men – we drive up the Downs, past the racecourse and the Whitehawk Estate and at the end of a track, we arrive at the ABOB allotments. It’s an idyllic space with views to the Seven Sisters where, on the top of the hill, a group of men grow fruit and vegetables and help each other. Our welcome is warm and genuine, a defining feature of everyone we meet today, and after a quickly served round of warm drinks of peppermint tea with mint from the allotment, we sit down in their hand built circular shelter and begin. Everyone takes a turn to speak, while the others listen intently and fully, and respond at the end to confirm that yes, you have been heard (a trick, Dan tells me, learnt from the Native Americans). The sense of honesty in the group is disarming and extremely humbling that the men here have allowed us to hear their stories and meet them in such a personal way. We cannot tell you much about the detail of what was said, but I can describe one of the experiences of the two young men we met.

He was relatively new to ABOB and described how, what seemed like difficult but relatively common problems in his childhood, escalated to a point where he was homeless and involved in crime at a young age. He looked down a lot and said he was extremely nervous, but told his story with courage and honesty. At the end, he described how for the first time he had a sense of a future and looked forward to what his life would be like in five years – something that he had never done before. He then smiled the most incredible smile and looked happy – it was incredibly moving. We could see just how direct the impact was on building the confidence of these young men and what was really striking for me, given the earlier conversation we had had, was the complete absence of anger. It was an open, challenging and deeply felt conversation. It made me realise just how infrequently we really listen in our every day lives and just how important real support can be. The discussion closes with a ‘three word check-out" – "thanks for coming” says one to us, to which I responded saying "I feel humbled, moved and inspired."

OUR JOURNEY HOME

It was time for us to leave and after a warm thanks, we headed back to the station, changed by what we have experienced and discussing intensely with Dan and Nathan about what it all means. ABOB have big plans for the future – a permanent home and centre where they can really develop their programmes and demonstrate their impact. We promised to share our experience today with the private clients who support ABOB, and leave a little changed forever.

Find out more about how we supported A Band of Brothers or visit www.abandofbrothers.org.uk

Joanna Walker - Head of Private Clients


Joanna has spent the last 20 years working with people to help them realise their philanthropic goals.

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