It’s life Jim, but not as we know it.
I went to a graduation ceremony earlier this week.
But this was not just any ordinary graduation, with college students wearing gowns, mortar boards and beaming smiles, all too briefly receiving their certificates from a visiting dignitary, along with family hugs to wish them well on the next stage of their newly educated journey. No, this was two hours of my life that was so much more uplifting and life affirming altogether. For on this particular day, these graduates were celebrating something much more fundamental.
This was a graduation ceremony at the House of St. Barnabas.
I’ve been a member at the House for a number of years and have been using its club since it first opened. Located in a magnificent four storey grade 1 listed Georgian townhouse overlooking Soho Square in central London, the House is actually a charity that runs an employment Academy whose main aim is to train and help people who have been affected by homelessness back into sustainable employment. A major part of the charity’s organisation is a not-for-profit private members’ club that supports that effort. I use the club regularly every week, happy in the knowledge that every penny of profit they make from my membership fees, coffees, beers, and the occasional lunch, goes straight to the charity; and that some of the staff are from the Academy training programme. Participants on the programme gain hugely valuable employment experience often by spending part of their time at the Academy by working in one of the many various back-office administrative or front-of-house service roles that enable the House to function. But, admittedly, I had never really thought that much about it.
Then one day, last December, I was inspired by a visiting friend to investigate and apply to become a mentor for the training programme. When people come to meet me and they are visiting the House for the first time they will almost always be initially coerced into letting me take them on a guided tour. As well as showing them the club and its wonderfully classical rooms with spectacular Stucco ceilings including the Silk room whose walls are, literally, draped from ceiling to floor in glorious golden silk; the curated contemporary artwork that includes a Banksy, Damien Hirst et al.; the fabulous courtyard garden where Dickens wrote a Tale of Two Cities; and the exquisite chapel that gives the House its name (I could go on at this point…); I make sure to tell them about the House, the charity and the cause; ushering them up to the floors above the club to visit the training Academy, and to talk about the programme. As it turned out, on this particular occasion my visitor was so impressed that he immediately asked if his company could become a corporate sponsor. And this made me think — if he can make such an instant decision to try and help others, then why don’t I bloody well do something to contribute as well.
So I signed up.
On my application to be a mentor I was honestly blunt — my knowledge of homelessness was limited to that which is fed to us by the media; my views were blinkered, metaphorically and sometimes literally, by my perception of those we see on our streets; and I have never had the misfortune to actually experience what it must be like to be homeless. I will admit that in comparison to many others I have spent my entire life in comfortable circumstances and surroundings. In other words, a world away from the uninvited, yet harsh, and often cruel, experiences and situations that each of the participants on the training programme will have found themselves at some recent point in their lives. And yet, I still felt that I could offer something as a mentor, and, after applying and being approved, the House duly accepted me onto the programme.
Participants on the programme undertake a twelve week training course, the ultimate aim of which is to equip them with the knowledge, skills, confidence, and encouragement to find and sustain meaningful employment. Suffice to say that for many of the participants, their actual life circumstances are such that even just getting onto the programme can be considered an achievement. There are criteria that they have to comply with in order to be accepted. But once they are on the programme they get work experience in the club and in the office, and are trained in employability, hospitality or business and administration. And they get accreditation by City & Guilds.
They get training in personal development, stress management, goal setting and communication skills. They have CV workshops, and guidance on interview techniques, job searching and preparing for work. And towards the end of the 12 weeks each participant is matched with a mentor — someone who can help them sustain their search, tenure and, ultimately, enjoyment of work, beyond the final efforts of the House once the training programme comes to an end and they have to let go of the support it offers. Mentors, too, are trained by the House, and I was subsequently matched with one of the participants, my mentee, 4 weeks ago.
This week my mentee graduated from the programme along with the other participants, and it is now a tradition that they are given the opportunity to celebrate their graduation in a ceremony hosted by the Academy in the chapel. Everybody from the Academy attends, including mentors, and graduates are invited to bring guests. Not all the graduates choose to stand up and say something at the ceremony, but if they do, they are given a free rein to say whatever they feel and to express themselves however they desire. And on this occasion, those that did express themselves did so in terms far more meaningful than mere platitudes.
For the gathered audience what we all witnessed was not just a procession of grateful acceptance speeches. No, it was a human outpouring of emotions — yes, there were tears from some, along with evident passion, pride, commitment, creativity, joy, and determination — especially for those who had to overcome patently obvious nerves and summon up the courage to speak in front of a live audience for the first time. And in their words and performances they put on a clear display of courage.
And it struck me.
That courage had given these people the desire to find their own personal and heartfelt ways to say thank you and enable them to move on. To say thank you to the House and the Academy team for the opportunity, the support, compassion and encouragement they have been given, and to move on and find a new, more purposeful, way to try and live their lives.
This ceremony was not about them graduating as such and receiving an award.
This was about them saying goodbye to the circumstances that previously contributed to the person and the life they wanted to leave behind.
This was about them welcoming themselves to the person they aspired to be.
This was about them stepping forward.
Into a new life.
If this has interested you enough to want to visit the House just let me know. But be prepared to put up with me showing you around.