Inspirational Women – Louise Botwright
She says, “No young person thinks, oh I want to grow up and be a drug addict, or I’d love to grow up and be in prison. No young person thinks that.”
Louise’s story is unfortunately much the same as many teenagers who find themselves facing difficulties in school, or feeling misunderstood in their families. The difference with Louise was that she experienced a series of culminating events that found her on a downward spiral of depression and of feeling not wanted, that eventually led her to leave home and to living on the streets and in hostels. She came through. Mostly because she had a strong inner sense of herself, an internal frame of reference that kept reminding her “this isn’t the best place for you.” Now as a successful young entrepreneur who has her life back on track, she devotes her time to helping ensure other young people have the kind of support and understanding that was lacking when she grew up. Especially those who feel no hope and don’t have that internal mechanism to pull themselves out.
Louise’s story is eloquent and humbling in that it makes you realise we all play an important role in young people’s lives, whether we are teachers, MP’s, sisters, brothers, family, friends or business people, with or without children, from all walks of life. The underlying message is that we are all truly responsible for how a young person grows up and the kind of society they will be delivered into.
Whilst her story is sobering for a whole variety of reasons, it is a triumphant one that ripples out into the lives of hundreds of the young people who are struggling. Crucially her charity JUMP manages to get to the root of the issues young people are faced with in our modern world and through her ingenuity, passion and personal experience, Louise is able to show the youngsters that there are choices, that a difference can be made. JUMP knows how to intervene in a damaging cycle that rescues a young person from a destructive way of life. It is desperately needed. In her own words Louise explains where it all began for her.
“I was doing quite well at school academically, I had good grades and went up to high school and at the age of 14 I started getting into a little bit of difficulty, and in my personal life as well. I experienced a whole host of things such as low self esteem, lack of confidence, and ended up getting into all kinds of different things really, that ended up on a downward spiral lasting for 3 years. I ended up leaving school at 15 with no qualifications at all and not much hope of what I was going to do. That was the first step on the downward spiral that I took.”
As a lonely and vulnerable 15 year old she started to hang out with older people who were on the path of homelessness, drug and alcohol use. She found this more attractive because it seemed to offer something more exciting. She felt she knew it all at the time, as she describes it, but looking back she realised she was beginning to put herself into vulnerable situations, which then quickly spiralled into all kinds of trouble.
The transition from junior school to high school was a difficult one for Louise and she found herself getting into trouble. As she puts it, “during the teenage year’s everything changes” and as adults we seem to forget the difficulties and conflicts that a young person faces whilst coming to terms with growing into adulthood. It is clear from Louise’s story that once a few vital places of security are out of balance, such as difficulties at home, low self esteem, a major transition, a lack of understanding in a young person, then you have all the ingredients in place for that potential journey into negativity and loss of hope.
Louise looks back to that time and now understands that in schools, if you have lively teenagers who cannot physically sit still and listen to a teacher, the difficulties can start at that point, because the school system is not sympathetic to the different learning needs of its students. It appears that it is geared to reward certain types of behaviour and learning styles. She found that she quickly developed a reputation for being difficult, and discovered that she found it easier to live up to that reputation than not. There was nothing in place to advise her, or offer an alternative to her situation. She was labelled, she didn’t conform, and that was that.
Her journey downwards was then compounded by events at home. She found herself reacting badly towards her family because of this. The more that she did, the more that she got into trouble and it seemed to her that her parents hated her even more. That increased the sense of isolation and the cycle of drink and drug use. She would then go out and use these substances to cope, by numbing out how she felt. What she discovered was that the more that you did that, the more you create a cyclical habit. She would then come home under the influence and create even more trouble. Instead of dealing with it, she found she would go out and get drunk again. Nothing was really dealt with or talked about.
Combined with the beginning of this cycle it was also about her being young, vibrant and interested in experimentation, so it was also about trying something new and mixing with the older age group she could experiment with cannabis and alcohol quite freely. This became her hands on education. She found she needed to fill her time once she had left school at 15 and so used alcohol and drugs with her new friends. This very quickly led into more drug and alcohol use leading to homelessness and crime. This kind of negative spiral gradually creeps up on you, so that perversely, it becomes more difficult to get out of, and by the time you might do so, you have been sucked in and it becomes the way of life. As she explained, the paradox is that once in it, you don’t even think about the way you are living and behaving anymore. It simply doesn’t factor. A crossing over has occurred. The cycle was of sleeping rough, or sometimes sleeping in a hostel, then being involved with different bits of crime to stay alive was the norm. It was her life. She says about her experience,
“It happens surprisingly quickly and once the habit has formed you find your thoughts go to “How can I pay for this?” “How do I get this?” because now that is your life, and the people that you mix with, the people that are in that same environment influence you in this way, as this is their life.”
Louise goes onto say that no one really checks on you as a young person. She sites her own example as quite typical, which is still heart breaking to hear is prevalent today. Her support worker would check with her at the beginning when she went into a designated B & B, and only checked in with her when she left, when it didn’t work out. She reports that no one pops into see how you are coping. As a young person you can be in really very vulnerable situations in these hostels, and this continues to be a source of frustration for her. She explains the situation with clarity,
“All the people I mixed with had been down a similar route. We never discussed the situation we were in. To be honest you don’t even tend to see that there is another way. It’s more about who is going to get the weed this week or the alcohol and that becomes the focus. I ended up running away from the hostel and I was put into a B & B when I was 16, and that wasn’t pleasant at all. There were people there who were heroin users and people who had been in prison for some quite serious offences that were waiting to be housed. I got offered heroin, but I never went that far.”
Luckily, she says, she had her own boundaries and whilst she didn’t initially see the consequences of others taking heroin, over time they became clear. Being offered heroin and choosing to say no, were important moments. It would have been a life tilting moment for her had she chosen otherwise. She says quite clearly that she may not be here today, except for that guiding sense within her. All because Louise had that guidance telling her that there was something more, she found that she couldn’t crossover any further. She felt somewhere that she could make a difference and change her life. This undoubtedly was her lifeline. She is wise enough, and knows enough to recognise that others don’t have that.
Listening to Louise, the biggest thing that struck me in her journey was the pattern of behaviour and the growing attitude of not feeling worthy or wanted. A lethal cocktail that combined with the sense of a growing “seduction” to a way of life that appears more glamorous and attractive than the “normal” one that you are in, exposing a young person to difficult choices, which without the strength or understanding to pull out of, sucks them in. The labelling in societies eyes is an additional “bonus” adding to the mix and the die is cast on their lives. Choices become fewer. Louise agrees with this and her story certainly bears this out.
“When you are in a hostel or B & B mixing with people who are older and in some cases who already have serious convictions, you have fewer choices. You either sit in your room all day and do nothing, or mix with the people sharing that environment with you.”
Isn’t the message clear? With societies take on how to deal with difficult youngsters, we are in effect wiping our hands of any responsibilities and feeding young people straight into the Lion’s den.
Louise realised more and more that something was missing. Eventually she managed to think, “I must stop this and get my life back on track.” Luckily, she had one of those epiphany moments. One night whilst sleeping on the streets of Oxford, she decided to spend the night in the local hostel. To get into this hostel you needed to have a check by a Doctor, to make sure you did not have hepatitis from something you had picked up. Louise said,
“When I went into register, I will never forget what he said to me, which was, ‘”What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here.’”
That was the moment for her. She had always known this and when he said that, although she had hit her lowest point, she recognised the truth of it. When she made her mind up to come back, the first action she took was to call her parents, though it wasn’t easy as she recalls,
“That person taking those moments to say that to me completely changed my life. It really took a lot of courage to go back especially with my parents, as I had put them through a helluva lot, along with the rest of my family. It took a lot of courage for me, as that was the life I had gotten used to, and I knew if I went back to my family, I would have to cut off from every single person from my old life, the people that I called my friends at that point, to start a fresh.”
Unlike alot of young people, she had the support of her family and a home environment to come back to, plus that inner compass, drive and motivation to want to do more with her life. Louise did get back on track and very successfully too. As she slowly returned, she spent some time working in retail and sales. This wasn’t “it” for her and she kept thinking about her past, querying if she could use that negative experience in a positive way. With life and its synchronicity, she kept hearing stories about young people who were going through similar situations as she had.
For Louise the thought, “actually I have experienced that, and I was one of the fortunate ones that was able to come back,” was persistent enough that it made the eventual push happen for her. She realised that she wanted to do something to help the young people coming behind her not to go down the same track that she had. That was really where the idea and inspiration to do something came from, and it snowballed from there.
“JUMP has now been running for 3 years but at the time I was 19 with just an idea. It didn’t really get going until I was 20 / 21 years old and started to focus. I didn’t believe that anyone would take me seriously, especially as I didn’t have any qualifications and I had a criminal record.”
Louise had to find out whether the criminal record would stop her, as she recalls, “When I first started looking into youth work, I was really worried this would impact on my chances of getting into this kind of work and at one place it did, but with others it was ok, as I was totally up front and honest about it. People understood, and it hasn’t affected the work I do now, and I think that’s a really important point. Lots of our volunteers do have a criminal record and are worried about it, but as long as you are up front and honest, having a criminal record doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t get a job doing what you love and helping improve the lives of others.”
She started by doing copious amounts of research into services for young people. When she was ready to present her ideas, she wrote letters to 15 different organisations explaining what she had been through, what she was finding out and that there didn’t seem to be any services out there helping young people in the way she felt was useful. Only 1 person replied, which was her local MP Bob Blizzard. He said he was really inspired by her story and would like to help her. So a meeting was arranged. Discussing her ideas with someone who was interested and listened was a really positive experience. Louise came away from it with a sound idea and the confirmation that there really wasn’t a service out there to help.
Then she started to look for voluntary work to get qualifications and experience, and took a placement within an organisation where it was also confirmed to her that until young people got to a certain point, then there wasn’t anything out there to support them. This spurred Louise on even more. She knew then that the first step was to create a service for youngsters. Louise had an instinct about this, she thought the best ideas would come from the young people themselves. So she gathered a group of youngsters together and formed a small committee to find out if their ideas matched the ones she had. They did. Then Louise got to grips with thorough research on how charities and social enterprises actually worked. This took a year.
All her waking hours other than being at work were devoted to finding out what was involved. She still didn’t know if she would be able to do something or had any idea that someone like herself could set something up. But more and more young people were hearing about what she was doing and the feedback she was getting was really positive, and that continued to inspire her and keep her going.
Louise still cannot believe that “in this day and age” young people are not getting the correct information about the effects of drugs and alcohol. We all know that experimentation goes on for teenagers, we did it ourselves, but the crucial intervention points that were loosely in place prior to government cuts, now no longer exist. A case of bad housekeeping to save money, versus investing in the future, that just happens to be the adults of tomorrow. It becomes clear then that Louise’s expertise and life journey that have helped form the charity JUMP are now vital. The service that JUMP provides fills the gap that schools and our society seem to be unable to cope with. For those who cannot be reached and need to travel this downward spiral, JUMP’s presence then becomes a lifeline to help them come to terms with life and growing up.
JUMP helps break the patterns and habits that are forming it shows that there is another option, another way forward; especially for kids and youngsters who don’t have the same inner mechanism or understanding that Louise had. Louise explains that the key is being able to provide the options to show there is another way. That, in the precarious situations youngsters find themselves that there are choices and show them where those choices can lead to. Louise goes on to explain how the power of words affects young people.
“From looking at me when I was 16 / 17 years old and what I have got now and what I have achieved you wouldn’t believe it was the same person.”
Louise recounts the message she received at school. Being told that she would amount to nothing in her life. This is damning and powerful label was interpreted by Louise that she was a waste of space, and only added to a sense of hopelessness. It’s a familiar one we have either heard ourselves or has been said to us. For some it’s like a knife that adds the final twist.
Louise explains, “Young kids are given labels and told “what they are” at points in time of great vulnerability when an adults word has a strong impact. What the Charity JUMP does is to remind kids that they aren’t “nothing,” that everyone is good at something. JUMP asks the questions how can we help you turn things around? How can we support you on your journey?”