THE PROJECT THAT STARTED SMALL
BUT IS TAPPING INTO SOMETHING BIG
A Making Generation R blog, by Amy Le Grys
Making Generation R started as a small-scale grassroots project to empower veterans, giving them the confidence to tell their stories and share their experience with the community. Several years later, the joint initiative by Blesma, The Limbless Veterans and The Drive Project has flourished into a programme that is not only of purpose and meaning to veterans, but also benefits thousands of young people.
The workshops involve veterans sharing how they found resilience within themselves through challenging times in life, followed by activities encouraging participants to focus on how they might use helpful coping strategies when facing tough times themselves. In other words, building resilience. Here, I talk to Lily from The Drive Project to discuss Making Generation R as she retells her anecdotes and experiences of being involved with the project.
Lily has been involved with Making Generation R as a facilitator since its first inception four years ago. Having trained as a dancer, she has been a valuable asset to The Drive Project’s initiatives for some time but it was The Two Worlds of Charlie F, a play written and created by injured service personnel where, as choreographer, she became engaged with veterans. This was her first experience encountering the military as well as people who had suffered from limb loss, and found the experience to be invaluable and the production won the Amnesty Award for Freedom of Expression. So when Making Generation R was launched, she was asked to come on board as a facilitator, helping to navigate and guide the workshops.
Lily first explains how Making Generation R has expanded to include not only secondary schools but also primary schools, pupil referral units, and emergency services such as fire and police services, as well as bespoke groups such as young carers and student nurses. When asked if there were any challenges in facilitating these workshops to a younger audience in primary schools (some of the veterans’ stories are rather graphic), Lily replied that actually on some scale the situation poses less of a challenge,as the younger pupils have less fear.“They are amazing because they don’t worry about asking questions,” she tells me. Lily also makes the point of, “the earlier, the better.” The earlier children are exposed to mental health coping strategies, the more they are able to use their newfound strategies in resilience much more as ahabit rather than introducing strategies later and having to adopt them as a task; it’s harder to teach an old dog new tricks. Lily further makes the point that primary school children’s encounters with people of different backgrounds as well as people of disability, such as the veterans involved with Making Generation R, means they are less likely to see people living with disabilities as “other”.
It’s not just the participants of the workshops that seem to benefit; many teachers and staff of the schools and other bodies consistently provide overwhelmingly positive feedback and often get involved in the sessions themselves. I ask if this is an indication that the concept could span across ages and is something that is needed in the wider workplace. Lily’s response seems to confirm that these workshops have been invaluable to a cross-section of society. When a workshop was delivered to a group of student nurses, the positive response was overwhelming because, “there’s nothing in place for trauma in work life,” she explains. There is such a mentality of “carrying on” in the workplace that eventually something’s got to give, equating to a high burnout rate across the workforce.
Even in her own life, Lily claims she has found the methods of the workshops creeping in to aid her; “the workshops are like a constant reminder in my everyday life (…) we all make a choice for when we do something,” and when faced with a challenge, using a helpful coping strategy over an unhelpful one can be a simple but powerful change. The resilience workshops emphasise the benefits of ‘helpful strategies’ such as opening up to people to discuss problems and sourcing helpful solutions rather than bottling things up or isolating oneself. Every problem, no matter how small, is still a problem, but if we let them, small solvable problems can become big challenges if not approached in the right way.
Whether the problem is a mounting workload at school or work, or handling difficult relationships at home or with colleagues, or perhaps facing life-changing injury, though you may not have control over the situation, you can control your handling of it. Hearing how veterans managed their own challenges, both in and out of service, before and after injury, provides a platform for young people to understand resilience, not in a “textbook” way, as Lily puts it, but on a human level. “These are real people with real lives,” Lily explains. They are telling their own story and it is this authentic nature that makes the project unique. Lily emphasises that “although empathy was not the aim of the project, it has certainly been a resulting effect and the honesty of the veterans matched with the honesty of the workshop participants creates a tangible impact.” The project, when it first started was “definitely tapping into something,” Lily states but “that something” wasn’t entirely clear at the time. Now, with the project expanding to reach all corners of Britain and engaging more participants than ever, it is clear that this bespoke project is invaluable in helping so many people face life challenges with the resilience needed, and in terms of mental health and well-being, it is unique and clearly invaluable to those involved.
We’ve All Got Demons: Woody’s Story
A Making Generation R blog, by Amy Le Grys
“Dad! Dad! DAD!” Those were the cries of Nigel “Woody” Woodward’s three sons, moments after he started revving his vehicle’s engine. Seconds before, Woody contemplated taking his own life and those seconds might have been his last if had not been for his boys’ cries bringing him back from the brink. Woody looked around for his sons but there was no one around. Those cries were in his head and brought up a fired resilience within him to carry on, to keep going.
What was it that pushed Woody to the brink of desperation? So much so that he wanted to end his own life? It’s certainly a journey. Upon leaving the armed forces in the late 1980s, Woody threw himself into his work driving forklift vehicles. Whilst working on a project in Guernsey, Woody’s vehicle fell off a cliff, plummeting 320ft into the sea. The impact of the water threw Woody out of the door and saved his life. When rescued by the emergency services, he was conscious enough to protest he needed to stop on the way to hospital at his local, because he was, he considered, well enough for a quick pint. However, Woody wasn’t all right. He had to be induced into a coma for several weeks. His lungs were filled with a mixture of diesel, engine and hydraulic oil combined with greasy seawater and blood that had to be syringe-extracted out of him. But what was worse, when he finally came round, was his missing right foot.
And it got worse still. “You’ve taken my right foot, what could possibly be worse?”, cries Woody to his doctor. The doctor explains that in order for Woody to have a base for a stump to use a prosthesis, the lower right leg had to come off completely. Woody returns to his family home in Bristol, his right leg amputated below the knee. When seeing the other dads taking their kids to football and participating in the Fathers’ Race at Sports Day, Woody says to himself “I’m not a Dad no more”. Woody can’t see his role as a loving beloved father and husband, just as a burden whose teenage sons are now carers and have to grow up fast. Woody revs the engine.
Woody tells this story in a small room at a Cardiff youth centre with a small audience, less than twenty people, but the room feels like it is bursting at the seams. This small audience is made up of young carers aged between 11 and 18 and Woody’s story certainly strikes a chord as both the young carers and staff ask many questions about Woody’s own sons caring for him. There’s a wave of trust in the room between Woody and these young people, almost so tangible that you could touch it. What creates this trust, Woody tells me after, is his honesty. “Ask me anything and I’ll give you an honest answer,” is his way and there is no sugar-coating here because that doesn’t help anyone. You’ve got to face these issues, that are often taboo, face on. Woody doesn’t shy away when asked about his suicide attempt, or about how he used alcohol in dark times. It helps no one to bottle up and hide the realities of personal struggles.
This is Woody’s third year delivering workshops to young people as part of the project Making Generation R, but delivering his story to young carers always hits home as he reflects on the role his own sons have played throughout his care.
But Woody isn’t the only one with demons, we all have them knocking on our door at some point or another. After Woody’s story, the audience take part in a workshop directed by experienced workshop facilitator Owain Ford (pictured), and a discussion takes place about how to deal with challenging life situations. They are asked to think about how they feel and how they might handle difficult times as well as listing unhelpful versus helpful strategies. Understanding Woody’s own ‘unhelpful’ strategies, such as drinking alcohol and isolating himself, helps the participants to think of their own unhelpful strategies such as hiding inner feelings from friends and family, becoming confrontational at school and at home, and not sleeping or eating due to stress. When consolidating their helpful strategies they think about listening to music or audiobooks, physical activity, spending time in company and going to bed earlier.
These are all simple things to do but can actually be quite difficult in the heat of the moment or when it seems there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. After the workshop, one of the young carers approaches Woody and breaks a tear explaining how they were currently going through their own difficult time, and how listening to Woody had inspired them. When someone approaches you like that, it makes it all worthwhile, explains Woody: “If I know I’ve hit one person then that’s enough. That’s why I enjoy doing things like this.” Some days are worse than others, for both Woody and the young people listening to his story. But taking part in this project, for Woody, knowing that just one person was helped means that some days the demons don’t come knocking at all.
Find out more about Making Generation R: Resilience Through Inspiration here.
Resilience in the Next Generation
A Making Generation R blog, by Amy Le Grys
Resilience. It seems to be the buzzword of the day, the noun of the moment. Just type it into Google and you’ll be offered over 140 million results including: medical reviews; news articles; white papers; psychological studies; initiatives from a plethora of bodies including the United Nations and World Health Organization; and an endless list of self-help books. It would seem that the subject has been exhausted. And yet, when it comes to being able to use resilience in every day life, I’m sure many of us wouldn’t know where to start.
There are still many questions. Is resilience learned or is it embedded in our DNA? If it is something found within ourselves, how do we access it in times of need? One definition of resilience provided by the online Oxford Dictionary reads the ‘ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity’ suggesting the idea that adaptability you can always spring back no matter how much life messes with you. Easier said than done.
You could look up every definition out there and still not know how to face adversity with resilience when needed. For young people today it seems adversity is lurking at every corner. The list of worries is alarming for the newest generation, Generation Z as they’re often known: exam and academic stress; peer pressure; home and family life; relationships with friends and partners. These are nothing new. But the pressure to know what you want to do with your life by the age of 15 to determine your GCSE subjects, and the financial pressures on young people (upon leaving university you could come away with over £60,000 of debt) causes a wave of anxiety and stress.
Then there’s the dreaded social media forcing young people to constantly compare themselves. This is a phenomenon that didn’t even exist five years ago, let alone in pupils’ parents’ generation. In addition, social services funding cuts, inflation and unaffordable housing have caused, according to The Times, child poverty figures to rise twice as fast as government estimates. It seems the life odds are stacked against you before you’ve even left childhood. Resilience isn’t just a flouncy noun; it’s a prerequisite for survival.
As a nation we are facing a mental health epidemic. According to the mental health charity Mind, one in four adults experience mental illness of some kind each year, from anxiety and depression to substance abuse and psychosis. The Mental Health Foundation has reported that 50% of mental health issues are caused before the age of 15. Over 10% of school children have a diagnosable mental illness with more going undiagnosed and experiencing poor mental health at some point in childhood.
So what can be done? A renewed government focus on mental health in PSHE (Personal Social Health Education) in schools, which is to become part of the compulsory curriculum by 2020, has dumped the burden at teachers’ feet once again. But PSHE is an odd subject often passed around teachers with little guidance or support offered. In a Guardian report, one teacher asked: ‘What makes me, an English teacher, or Steve down in Science “best placed” to understand our students’ PSHE needs?’ A story I can relate to as my own PSHE lessons were conducted by a stream of maths, PE, history and French supply teachers. Needless to say, mental health, sex and relationships, consent and LGBTQI+ awareness were not exactly their field of expertise. As an adult my own teacher friends are facing the same problem. But thankfully there is help out there with charities, higher education bodies and social enterprises getting involved and providing the much longed for expertise and support.
Enter Making Generation R. It is a joint initiative set up by Blesma, a charity to support limbless veterans to lead fulfilling and independent lives, and The Drive Project, a social enterprise using the power of the arts for recovery. Making Generation R provides free workshops and talks to school children around the UK using veterans’ inspirational stories of overcoming hardship as the basis of understanding resilience – what the R stands for – and using it in times of difficulty. It’s an original idea and a bold one. Pupils hear first hand from veterans and come up with helpful strategies that will aid them in their own everyday lives. Filling a hall with a story of how an IRA bomb took both legs off one veteran and a motorcycle accident left another in a coma is not what one would expect in the average school classroom. But it seems to be just the trick as this bespoke project, that takes many forms from large school assemblies to small workshops for carers and even university nursing students, has already reached over 45,000 participants and intends to reach out to many more by the end of the year.
Pupils experiencing the workshops discuss helpful coping strategies such as breathing techniques and are made aware of channels made available to them such as Childline, Kooth and counselling. There is a great takeaway for the veteran speakers as well, who enjoy helping young people in sharing their story and find the process cathartic for their own recovery. Is this the answer that helps young people, teachers, and veterans, all at no cost to the public purse? It seems too good to be true. However, this initiative is not simply jumping on the resilience bandwagon, it is authentic and considered, providing real substance to the word ‘resilience’ and changes young lives for the better. Forget the label Generation Z, it’s all about Making Generation R.
Find out more here.