Sunny Dhadley talks to David Gilliver about peer mentoring, raising awareness and the importance of seizing the moment
‘Anything’s possible if you make the most of your opportunities,’ says Sunny Dhadley, service user involvement officer at SUIT and director of the Recovery Foundation CIC in Wolverhampton. ‘Or create opportunities if they’re not available.’
He first entered treatment at 19, the beginning of a long period of being ‘in and out’ of services, he says. ‘Once I started using heroin and crack cocaine it was initially a matter of me saying, “I can stop if I want to stop” but it soon became apparent that it wasn’t going to be that straightforward. I thought my life would still work out the way I wanted it to, but I was constantly being pulled back by my addiction – I had traits of my previous life that were apparent within my treatment journey.’
He finally completed his detox eight days before his wedding day in 2007, which was also his 27th birthday, leaving him drug-free but unsure of what to do next. ‘I didn’t know who I was or what I enjoyed doing,’ he says.
One thing he did know was that he wanted to try to ‘influence other people not to go down the same road’, and decided to get involved in volunteering. ‘I had to find out about it myself – I had no guidance in terms of someone saying, “do this course” or “go and see these people” – and within quite a short time I found myself managing the organisation that I’d started volunteering at.’
That was Wolverhampton’s SUIT (Service User Involvement Team), which originally launched with just two staff and one volunteer. ‘It was in its embryonic stage really when I took over, so I kind of had a blank canvas, other than contractual obligations,’ he says. ‘The service developed very much as a result of the needs and wants of the service user population.’
As well as his role as service user involvement officer with SUIT, he also set up the Recovery Foundation last year. ‘SUIT sits within an infrastructure organisation – which is a non-drug and alcohol organisation – the local CVS [council for voluntary services],’ he explains. ‘That’s been a fantastic place for our organisation to be based because we receive a lot of support and resources from the voluntary sector.’ The arrangement is not without its downsides, however, and it was this that provided the initial impetus for the Recovery Foundation.
‘It soon became apparent that what we were doing was growing but when I was looking to expand, the local funding channels that we had were diminishing,’ he says. ‘So I wanted to find ways for us to go about attracting additional funding so we could increase the range of work we do, and I set up a CIC as a way for us to be able to do things outside the scope of our current contract, which is restricted by the SLA [service-level agreement]. And also there were issues of people not wanting to fund a small organisation that was part of a larger organisation, when they looked at the larger organisation’s overall income.’
In June it was announced that SUIT had won one of the Queen’s Awards for Voluntary Service, established to recognise the ‘outstanding contributions made to local communities by groups of volunteers’ and with an equivalent status for voluntary groups as an MBE. ‘For me, accolades are brilliant and we’ll lap them up, but it’s not what we set out to achieve,’ he says. ‘But SUIT is made up completely of people in recovery from drugs, alcohol and criminal involvement, so to be awarded the Queen’s Award was a fantastic achievement for everybody involved. And attending a royal garden party – if someone had said that to me eight or nine years ago, I’d have laughed my head off, to say the least.’
Drugs can be a particularly taboo issue in the Asian community, with people afraid to be seen accessing services and worries about bringing shame on their families. What sort of things can realistically be done to tackle that? ‘I think there are a number of things – proactively encouraging people from different ethnic groups to access treatment and outreach work in the community, and also if we could get certain kinds of establishments and people onside I think that would help. I’m particularly thinking about faith groups, because a lot of people tend to turn to faith as a way of getting the help and support they need.’
While this would mean tackling prejudices in some instances, raising awareness is key, he believes, ‘not just in the Asian community but any ethnic group, because public services are open to all members of the public, as the name suggests. So services need to be doing more to encourage all members of the community to access them.’
Should there be more drug workers from BME communities, in that case? Some people say that’s a vital issue, while others are less convinced. ‘I’m going to say yes because I think any workforce – particularly if they’re public-facing and public-supporting – should be mirroring the communities they serve,’ he states. ‘That’s not to say we should have positive discrimination, but in terms of connecting with individuals, I think if people from BME groups could see people in services who they could maybe relate to in terms of their ethnicity it would be a step in the right direction.’
One of his main passions remains peer mentoring, and it’s an area of work he’s hoping to expand. ‘I’ve been heavily involved in it since before it was even called that,’ he says. ‘It’s not a surprise to me that there’s so much emphasis on it and it’s so much in the limelight, because of the outcomes that can be achieved. One of the things I’m really looking forward to extending is helping other areas in developing really meaningful peer support-type programmes that add value to the local treatment systems.’
He’s currently involved in doing that on a consultancy basis in another region, Telford and Wrekin, supporting an after-care service and ‘really developing a robust way of evidencing what they do – having strong governance structures in place and effective monitoring tools so that they can really show and demonstrate to local stakeholders the difference they’re making to their community.’
This is something he’s now looking to do on a bigger scale, possibly through the creation of a social franchise of the model he’s helped to develop in Wolverhampton. ‘That means other areas can benefit from all the ups and downs and left and rights and diagonals we’ve been through, and have something really dynamic and innovative in place,’ he says.
The consultancy work has also helped to give him some perspective on his own service and locality, he explains. ‘It’s only by coming out of your area that you can see all the things you have in place that you take for granted and other people don’t have – performance management, financial systems, governance structures, a robust volunteer programme. These are all the things I’m working on in helping this organisation to develop.’
On top of his work with SUIT and the Recovery Foundation, he’s also sat on boards at the Skills Consortium for Substance Misuse and Public Health England, is soon to become part of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Misuse and is a third sector representative on Wolverhampton’s police and crime board. ‘That’s good on two counts,’ he says. ‘I can bring the background and knowledge of substance misuse, but also being from the BME community gives me a double-pronged approach to looking at supporting and influencing police objectives and plans. It’s been really interesting to be involved.’
He’s lately also become involved in Operation Black Vote and their West Midlands civic leadership programme. ‘I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to get behind the scenes and have a look at some of the civic roles that affect all of us. So as part of that I’ve had training on becoming a trustee and I’ve been shadowing the leader of Wolverhampton City Council, Roger Lawrence, to kind of pick his brains and find out what his function and role is. When I shadowed him it was in the midst of some really challenging times in terms of funding cuts, so it was really interesting to see how he handled that.’
On top of all this he was also part of a campaign to get local MEP Neena Gill re-elected, and now has aspirations to possibly run himself at some point. ‘I canvassed with Neena and just kind of badgered her and asked her questions, and she was really supportive,’ he says. ‘I was part of a successful MEP campaign so hopefully one day I’ll get to run my own.’ So does he ever have any free time? ‘Well on top of that I’ve got two very young children,’ he laughs, ‘so I could do with a few more hours in the day and a few more days in the week.’
While it would be tough to pick a highlight out of the last few years, one would have to be meeting the Reverend Jesse Jackson, as part of the 50th anniversary commemoration of the march on Washington DC, he says. ‘He said, “Learning and literacy are the key to liberation”. He was talking about the civil rights movement but it’s obviously the same for any vulnerable or marginalised groups, so I think it applies perfectly to substance misuse as well.’