ESH Works was built from a dream of peer-based recovery. Paul Urmston shares their story.
I used drink to cope. I didn’t really fit in the corporate world but I did it for fame, glory and money – all to make me look good in the eyes of other people. After coming out of detox and rehab for the second time I decided that enough was enough and that life was actually about being the person you really are and not what you thought everyone else wanted. So the acting stopped and I started a new life.
That was more than 17 years ago. While I was volunteering in recovery a decade ago, I was involved in a project looking at the quality of service provision for addicts and alcoholics in Coventry and Warwickshire. The conclusion of my mini-report back to the drug and alcohol action teams was that there was a lot of support available for people in addiction – but if it’d been a relay race, there were a lot of dropped batons (clients) when they were passed between organisations. There was also a major shortfall in the support for family members, with nowhere to turn to for help and advice.
This motivated three of us in recovery to form ESH Works – which stands for Experience, Strength and Hope – a peer-led mutual support and user involvement organisation to support family members and help guide people through the complexities of recovery and the different services provided. There was also a bit of a dream there that one day we could run a totally peer-led residential rehab facility – not for profit, but just because it was the right thing to do.
We started our not-for-profit social enterprise in the depression years and our mantra was ‘If we can make it work now then we’re going to be ok’ – and we did make it work. We’ve moved on to the point of opening Warwickshire’s first residential rehab fully staffed by people in recovery.
Back in 2009 drug and alcohol commissioners in Warwickshire were ahead of their time when they funded a couple of thousand pounds to instigate a family support network. Things progressed from there and we delivered our family support all around Warwickshire, hiring local community centres and halls most nights of the week.
We started in a small office in a local council ‘start-up’ enterprise hub, where we co-ordinated everything. When we first advertised the groups in some locations there would be no one there for the first month or more, until people started noticing the posters and leaflets that we’d dropped off at pharmacies and doctors surgeries.
I remember sitting in an empty room in at a community centre in Nuneaton one wet night, when two people came in. We’d been going to this room on the same night each week for nearly two months without anyone attending. We gave the couple a cuppa, talked through our experiences and the problems they were having with their son, and they went away saying we’d helped. As they continued to come back to our group we found out later that the husband was about to commit suicide the night they first came in, but had seen our leaflet that night in the doctor’s surgery and diverted to our group. That changed his life and ours! They’ve continued to attend and have volunteered with us for many years.
As this family support developed we had a moment of clarity and decided we should include a volunteer in long term recovery in each of our family groups. This was a revelation for our family members – they had a ‘tame addict’ to fire questions at, who didn’t pull the steel shutters down when asked about addiction. This approach is now recognised around the country as good practice, providing the volunteer is supported well in their own recovery so they’re not put at risk of discussions opening old wounds.
We applied for grants everywhere and where we were successful the grant providers wanted to see how we made a difference. It was usually down to numbers, so we just made sure we counted people – new clients or family members that were referred to us, or that came as self referrals (as most did).
As a service user involvement organisation we also assisted in writing the service specification for Warwickshire’s new ‘integrated’ drug and alcohol services – and we stressed that the service had to be integrated to stop the ‘baton dropping’. We also suggested quite strongly that any service user involvement and peer led support should be outside the mainstream to give it independence, credibility and a separate voice. Winning a service user involvement contract gave us a little more stability in terms of regular income, and we took on staff to manage groups in four locations around the county.
Four years ago we were approached by the Hepatitis C Trust who were running a project locally, to see if we wanted to be involved with a pilot support scheme assisting clients through hepatitis C treatment. We had the local volunteer base to provide peer support and we jumped at the opportunity.
As our peer support activity continued to grow, we had to demonstrate that we were more than just a group of addicts helping each other. We needed to show that we kept our volunteers safe, that we educated them and we looked after them. We looked around and decided to set up a formal peer mentoring programme based on the structured Mentoring and Befriending Foundation’s approved provider scheme (APS). It took about six months of hard work to pass the assessment, but we’ve been an approved provider for a few years now.
PHE provided a glimmer of hope in 2013 for our ‘bit of a dream’ of opening a residential rehab facility when we won a capital grant to assist with the purchase a ‘clean house’. We took out a commercial loan with the bank and funded half ourselves, and we established the house alongside running our peer support activities in Warwickshire. The way we operate in the community is with structured day programmes in different locations around Warwickshire, including the family support. The following year our user involvement contract was extended and we were secure for another couple of years.
In 2015 things started to move even faster when we applied for another PHE grant targeting residential peer-led rehab projects – an absolute hand in glove situation for us. When we were advised we’d been successful, our dream of opening a rehab wholly supported and managed by people in recovery started to look real.
We’re now more than a year on from winning the grant and I’d like to say it’s been a smooth and peaceful experience, but it hasn’t! But we’re now in the final stages of preparation before opening our doors.
It’s been a mammoth task for the managers, staff, volunteers and mentors to establish the facility, right from finding a suitable location in very expensive Warwickshire. Instead of an off-the-shelf ex hotel or care home we went for a property with potential that we could develop in the future.
What’s been key to the whole project is that we’ve engaged with all the key stakeholders – local drug and alcohol commissioners, chief constable, police and crime commissioner, head of public health in Warwickshire, all the CCGs, and MPs. By selling the benefits to everyone we’ve had brilliant support from the great and good of Warwickshire.
Some of the obstacles were planning permission, the change of use for the premises, and identifying that a new sewage treatment system was required. We had the inevitable builder problems during renovation and extending the property, giving us one or two sleepless nights. But all of these issues have been overcome with the perseverance and dedication of staff volunteers and mentors.
There’s also been some brilliant support from external organisations who are nothing to do with drug and alcohol support. As part of the funding drive, we sent dozens of letters out to CEOs of major manufacturers and suppliers, with mixed responses – but if you don’t ask you don’t get. We’ve had fantastic contributions from Tesco, Carpetright, Bensons for Beds, and Renault (for the minibus), all supporting the project with donations in kind or massive discounts.
Our staff, volunteers and mentors are now in the last stages of painting and decorating, digging pathways, laying paving, fixing new gates, and setting up the allotment. It’s been a hive of activity ready for the opening. We’re grateful to all those who have played a part in our story, including the volunteers who’ve moved on to other roles.
Our local MP Chris White was among those to support our organisation from the start. Watching the dream come to life he commended ‘the passion, commitment and hard work of the team’ and said ‘the wider definition of value is a reality in the provision of their peer-led approach to recovery for addicts and their families’.
Our structured programme now incorporates 12-step awareness, physical activities, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, anger management and professional counselling sessions. We have also developed a rolling family education and awareness programme, which includes Adfam’s step approach.
Recovery is all about change for the person in addiction, and by assisting the families to understand and deal with the client’s changing approach to life, we will actually be supporting their sustained recovery. We’ve gone from starting as a small peer-led support organisation to opening an 11-bed fully staffed and supported residential rehab – all achieved with people in recovery.
Paul Urmston is CEO of ESH Works