Alastair Kirkhope: From alcoholic to award-winning peer mentor

From soil expert to homeless alcoholic to peer mentor, the award-winning Alastair Kirkhope tells Jeremy Dunning how he rebuilt his life

It has been a long haul, but after five years Alastair Kirkhope is moving back in with his wife. There were times when the former homeless alcoholic from Scotland thought this would never happen, having managed to lose himself in a spiral of drinking.

Now the 56-year-old runs a successful gardening business, is a peer mentor and last Monday was named overall winner at the Crisis/Barclays Champions Awards to mark his achievements through the Crisis Changing Lives scheme.

These annual awards celebrate the successes of 12 individuals who have used the scheme, which funds homeless or former homeless people to improve their work prospects and change their lives for the better.

Kirkhope’s problems began when he lost his job as a trained agronomist in 1995 and steadily began to drink more over the next 10 years.

Separated from family

Unable to hold down work, the family lost their home in 2004 and he and his wife, Margaret, separated.

He moved between a succession of flats and a homeless hostel in Kelso, which was “horrendous”, but continued to drink heavily and spent most of 2005 in and out of hospital with injuries sustained while drinking.

Then on 28 March 2006 he decided to quit and has not touched a drop since.

Kirkhope’s Damascus moment came when he lost his driving licence in 2006 and realised he needed to stop drinking or he was “going to be dead”.

Wake-up calls

He had experienced previous wake-up calls.

He recalls holding his newly-born grandson in his arms for the first time in 2005 while he was in a Zimmer frame, having fallen and injured himself after another drinking binge.

“He was plopped in my arms,” he says. “I knew I had to get myself together for my daughter [Gillian] as well.”

He was helped in large part because he had always retained the support of his “three girls” – Gillian, his other daughter Joanne, and Margaret.

“My three girls have been a tremendous support,” he says. “I defy anybody to do it on their own. I don’t think I could have done it on my own.”

‘Dazed’ state

The Borders counselling and alcohol service found him a place at a men’s addiction centre in Edinburgh called the Bethany Christian Centre, where he arrived on 2 May 2006 in a “dazed” state.

Seven-and-a-half months later, Kirkhope’s life was on the up. He was receiving support from Working Links, which helps long-term unemployed people into sustainable employment, and the Homeless Outreach Project, which helps homeless adults in Edinburgh into stable accommodation.

The project helped him find a flat that formed part of a hostel called Dunedin Canmore in Leith. He lived there for 15 months and got his driving licence back, which was a “tremendous high point”.

He also worked with Edinburgh regeneration agency the Capital City Partnership, which helped him launch his business in May 2007.

Through this group he heard about Crisis and its Changing Lives project, which awarded him £1,200 in December 2007 to fund set-up costs.

Optimistic for future

Kirkhope had to persevere to make his business work and at times he feared it would not succeed. But now he is looking to take on staff.

With all the time people gave up for him, Kirkhope now gives up his time and offers support as a mentor at Dunedin Canmore and is sometimes called upon by his own Church of Scotland minister to help members of his congregation.

He is optimistic for the future and for his new life with his wife. “Things are getting better,” he says. “It’s quite a gradual process but things are definitely a whole heap better than they were.

“I’ve got a grandson who has never known that I drank. He’s not four yet so he’s never seen me drunk. I never think about it. There’s just no reason for me to pick up a drink.”

What makes a champion?

Leslie Morphy, Crisis chief executive, says: “The Barclays Achiever of the Year Award recognises the person that the judging panel felt was a true all-rounder – a true champion.

“Alastair Kirkhope has shown resilience, strength and through sheer determination has rebuilt his life.

“He has been dry for three years and his gardening business is now going so well that he is thinking about expanding.

“On a personal level our winner has also started to rebuild his relationship with his wife. Alastair symbolises what it means to be a true champion by succeeding despite all the odds.”

This article is published in the 29 October 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “Coming up roses”

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