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
    Gap.”

    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
    dividends.

    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
    administrator.

    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
    placements.

    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
    project:

    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
    people.”

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