A vital bridge

“I have worked in this field for 15 years and seen a lot of
different initiatives, but you don’t often get the feeling that you
have got the x-factor, but I got that feeling with Bridging the

So says Jon Royle, area director of Alcohol & Drug Services,
the agency responsible for the project that walked away with two
prizes at the Community Care Awards 2004.

Bridging the Gap is a pilot project based in Tameside near
Manchester, whose bold strategy to train former drug and alcohol
service users to work within substance misuse services has reaped

The idea for the project came when Royle was sitting on a local
drugs strategy group in Wigan. “There was a national issue about
not having the workforce to deliver the services envisaged in the
government’s 10-year plan,” Royle says.

“There was the potential to run a course that would benefit the
workforce and the people who went on it,” he says. “So many users
tell us there is nothing they would like more than to turn an
incredibly negative experience in to something positive and use
their experience to put something back. So you could almost see
Bridging the Gap forming out of the ether.”

Royle put together an ambitious proposal and put in a bid for
funding from the single regeneration budget with matched funding
from Europe. That proposal was to set up a six-month, part-time
training course for 25 former service users to increase their
employment prospects and to increase the number of skilled workers
in the field.

He put in a lot of work presenting his vision to local community
groups and trying to win the support of the statutory substance
misuse agencies, which were initially very sceptical. “Some people
questioned whether you could turn current or ex-drug users in to
the workers of tomorrow.”

A multi-agency steering group was set up in July 2003 with
representatives from the drug action team, police, adult and young
people’s substance misuse services, Jobcentre Plus and the
community. With backing from Tameside DAT co-ordinator Lisa Lees,
funding for 18 months was secured and Royle was able to appoint
project and training co-ordinator Michelle Ellis, and a part-time

Ellis’s appointment was crucial says Royle: “We were setting up
a challenging scheme and realised it would be difficult to get
someone who had training and teaching skills who was also an
experienced drug and alcohol worker. So what we were looking for
was someone who had the teaching skills and the passion to work
with people who had experienced difficulties and would communicate
that passion, which these people would need to inspire them.

Royle had set a target for Ellis to attract 60 applicants and
interview 40. In fact, 250 people applied to join the course, and
60 were interviewed. “I was looking for people who were going to
complete the course – they needed to have academic ability and be
stable,” Ellis says. Of the 25 who were selected, 20 were current
or former substance misuse service users, and the remaining five
had experience as a “concerned other”.

Unusually, the course accepts people who are still in treatment
and taking prescribed medication, and criminal convictions do not
disbar applicants as long as they are not for a violent crime.

The training, which takes place in different community centres
around Tameside, consists of a one-week induction, a structured
six-month training programme over 15 hours each week that aims to
give a broad foundation in drug work including communication
skills, drug treatment and assessment options, harm reduction,
diversity and child protection. Six hours are spent learning the
core skills, and in addition students receive two hours of
mentoring or supervision and spend up to seven hours working in

Nineteen students from the first course graduated in September.
This figure compares extremely favourably with a drop out rate of
50 per cent in standard drug treatment. Seventeen of the graduates
have gone on to either paid employment, further study or voluntary
work in the field.

“The outcomes were unprecedented,” says Royle. “What we are
doing changes lives. Users don’t just want treatment and
medication. They say ‘we want a life, we want what you have got – a
job and some pride and self-esteem’. They believe they can get that
from this scheme, and that is what we have given them.”

ADS chief executive Liz Smith believes another important
component is the way the project has enabled students to get
support outside of the classroom. “Friendships have sprung up and
it’s giving students a life away from their old one. They have
developed new support networks, which is invaluable and something
they can’t get anywhere else,” she says.

The second course started in September and, buoyed by its
success, the project has expanded the number of students to 29.

Everyone at the project was delighted by its success at the
Community Care Awards. “It was an amazing feeling – I was numb. It
is just such a wonderful honour to think that from hundreds of
superb projects we were chosen and wonderful reward for everyone’s
efforts. You don’t get excellence unless the people who are
involved in delivering it see it as more than a job.”

For Smith, waiting back at headquarters, it was the icing on the
cake in what is ADS’s 30th anniversary. “When the call came through
to say we had won I howled and cried for joy,” she says. Ellis says
she was simply “overwhelmed”.

Some of the award money will be used to employ additional
session workers whom it is hoped will be graduates of the scheme.
The rest will be spent on new IT equipment, and to launch a
marketing campaign to disseminate the work of the project and its
remarkable achievements.

“I would like to see a project like Bridging the Gap in every
drug action team area in England,” says Royle.

What Bridging the Gap students said about the

Lindsey Costelloe
“It does change people’s lives, whether you have been a user or
not. I have become friends with people who have been heavy drugs
users and have got an insight into what service users need. I have
enjoyed every minute of it.”

Matthew Ashworth
“I spent about eight years as a heavy end drug user, was
in and out of prison and was ruining my life. But I received a lot
of help and managed to get off drugs so I wanted to give something
back to the community. This course is a stepping stone into further
education or training.”

James Downie
“I was an alcoholic and a drug addict, but I have been clean for
the last 13 months. I wanted to get some experience of working in
the drugs and alcohol field to give something back and to help
myself. It’s been really good – I thought I knew a lot but, in the
grand scheme of things – I didn’t know much.”

Marilyn Barber
“Alcohol & Drugs Services saved my life. My problem is alcohol
and I was in such a bad state 14 months ago. But I went into a
detox programme and then came to ADS and heard about Bridging the
Gap. The course is fantastic, and I’ve met some really great

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