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Author: Chris Doyle

The light at the end of the tunnel

Ian visited us recently, to tell us how he’s doing in his new job, and how far he’s come since he first visited Back on Track in early 2107.

“I’d been doing well – good job, well paid, well, probably by most people’s standards. But then a family member got ill, and things started getting difficult. Over time it took a toll on me, and then got worse, until I ended up losing my job, feeling depressed and being completely isolated.

I was suffering from severe depression and anxiety when I found out about Back on Track. I was scared to walk into the centre, and coming to Manchester was difficult anyway cos it was so busy it was difficult for me to cope with. But I forced myself to do it.

Starting as a student was hard. I was quiet. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.  But then I realised that everyone was in the same boat, maybe not in terms of situation, but most were dealing with similar issues. That helped me to relax and start to learn. I did the ‘Out and About’ sessions, then the basic computing and well being courses. I learned about the different support available for anxiety, when previously it seemed like antidepressants were the only thing on offer. Plus, there was no set timetable, everything I did was done at the pace that I chose. Before I knew it I was helping others in the class who were struggling.

I did more classes during the 2nd term and by the end of it I was doing job searches. The volunteer coordinator said she’d noticed a change in me, encouraged me with the job searches and asked me if I’d considered volunteering. I didn’t think twice. I started in the cafe. It was scary working with money – it’s a big responsibilty! But I got loads of help from the other staff and volunteers, and I was so pleased that people were showing trust in me. Then I started doing stock control and then when someone was off one day I was in charge. It might sound like tiny steps but to me it was giant leaps! But I determined to repay the trust that people were showing me.

Then one day one of the staff took me down to a job fair at central library and I got offered a start with a local agency, working two days a week supplying supermarkets with stock. That was six months ago. I’m still there, alright I’m still on the agency books but now I’m doing 5 days a week. It’s hard work but I’m much fitter and a lot happier. My managers are advising me apply for a full time post as soon as one comes up.

I look back now and I don’t recognise the person I was back then. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, but it was like a pin prick in the distance. Thankfully, after starting at Back on Track it was like golf ball size, and it got bigger with each step I took. I’m stood right in front of the exit now, and I feel like if I can get a full time post I’ll be stepping out into the bright sunshine.”

What else can I say but good luck Ian, and congratulations for everything you’ve achieved so far!


Wellness – what works for you?

“One car! That’s all there was!” It’s difficult to imagine, but we all know it’s true.

It’s Tuesday morning and I’m in the IT room at Back on Track. I’m attending the ‘Having a voice’ group, and Jennifer has us all mesmerised. She’s telling us about a photograph of her and her sister, as children, on the street where they grew up. It’s the 1960’s, and the street is empty, except for one car.

“One, car. We were just looking at it the other day. We couldn’t believe it! I bet it was easy to park though.”

Having a voice is a weekly session to help participants develop their communication skills and build the confidence to speak up and have their views and opinions heard. During January the sessions have been focused on photography as part of Macc’s ‘Sharing Our Wellness’ campaign. We’ve agreed to take photos of what works for us in terms of wellness, or in other words, what makes us happy. It’s a really useful way to demystify wellbeing, and to help people think about it in everyday ways.

Our first session involves a trip to Manchester Art Gallery to see the Martin Parr exhibition – Return to Manchester, which contains photographs of everyday life in Manchester taken over the last 40 years. Everyone gets animated about the images – laughing at the fashions, and trying to identify the places.

Credit: Martin Parr https://www.martinparr.com

We all end up talking about things from the past that make us happy.  “I’ve always loved playing football.” says Anthony, as we walk back from the gallery. “I still do. I’m looking to join a veterans team at the moment. Even 5 a side would do. I know it’s fast, but there’s life in the old dog yet.” I don’t doubt it. He’s full of energy, darting about, and snapping away at random scenes with his camera.

We review the images the following week. Lots of them are great, and the session tutor Kate is full of positive encouragement and advice about how we can take even better photos. Then we’re off again with a brief to photograph patterns. Which are suddenly everywhere, if you take time to notice them. When we review again it’s clear that we’ve already got lots of good images to choose from. Kate instructs the group about uploading photos to PC and how to use the editing software. Kevin’s racing ahead, so we have a chat about his photo, and that it reminds of his school Plant Hill School. He talks about what lessons he enjoyed there, and what he’s learned since coming to Back on Track despite having learning difficulties.


There’s a real variety of photos, and when I’m chatting to people it’s lovely to hear each person talking about the image they’ve chosen. Everyone is happy for their content to be shown on online, but some don’t feel comfortable about being recorded, so we agree to type something for the website. Others are more than happy to talk, and Jennifer is really warming to the subject of old photos. “I like looking at old photographs, cos it helps me to think about being alive now, and that we should make the most of it. I used to work at a school in Wythenshawe. I still get old pupils coming up to me in the street all grown up and saying ‘Hello Miss! Remember me?’ and I always do. I ask them how many kids they’ve got and they tell me and I go ‘Alright then, see ya!’ You see, things change very quickly.”

Click here to see all of the selected images and stories from the project.





Moving On

“I’m not used to seeing you on a Friday” Says Ben. He does a double take as I walk in the door. Which is fair enough. I don’t usually work here on Fridays.

I’ve changed my working days at Back on Track this week so I can take part in the weekly ‘Moving On’ session. As the name suggests, it’s one of the more advanced training courses delivered by the education team, and helps people to make the next steps along their journey. That can mean training, volunteering or paid work elsewhere for many of those attending. The group get support with writing CV’s, applying for jobs, or practicing interviews, and Back on Track staff can arrange work placements with local employers. This week the Moving On group are having a presentation from Darren Burns, the National Recruitment Ambassador for Timpson. They have a pretty good record of recruiting people who have struggled with problems in their past, and helping them to turn their lives around. Lots of people have turned up to hear him.

One of those people is Florian, who has been attending the Moving On group for a few weeks now, and seems keen to find out about any possibility of work. We’re waiting in the corridor, chatting before the session when a woman walks in the door and hands him a carrier bag. “Thank you so much!” He says, looking extremely relieved. At first I think that he’s just left something in the communal space outside, but as she leaves he turns to me and says “That’s Amanda from ICM. They’re helping me out with some food while I wait for my Universal Credit claim decision.” I realise it’s a bag of tinned food. ICM is short for Inspiring Change Manchester, a lottery funded project led by Shelter and working with partners to provide support for people who are dealing with multiple and complex issues. Where appropriate, they can give out emergency food parcels to clients who are in dire need, like when they’re not receiving benefits. “That must be a big help.” I say, “I don’t know what I’d do without it.” He replies. I ask him how he found out about ICM. “I was lucky.” Says Florian. “I was going through a bad time, feeling really low. I was talking with a homeless friend in town when I met Lauren from ICM. She invited me to their centre. I went there and they really helped me. They’re still helping me to get back on my feet, and because I want to find a job, they told me about the Moving On Group. So here I am.”

I want to hear more but it’s time to go in for the presentation.

The room is L shaped. I can’t see round the corner but it seems pretty full. There’s easily over 20 people in there. Darren is introduced to everyone, and he stands where he can see everyone and jokes about being nervous, but he doesn’t look it. He speaks really well, and tells the group about the types of jobs available at Timpson, how they recruit, employee benefits and what they look for in potential employees. “We’re all about customer service,” he says, “So personality counts for a lot.” And there’s plenty of those in the room. “What’s the bad news?” shouts one of the group. Which gets a laugh, and a friendly but no nonsense response from Darren “We expect you to work hard.”

Afterwards, people are buzzing with positive energy. I spot Florian, and ask him if he’ll have a drink with me in the Café. “I don’t have any money” he says. “Don’t worry, my treat” I say. He laughs. “Ok, thanks. I’ll have a coffee.” We sit and drink, and talk. He tells me how he arrived in the UK from Albania 14 years ago, and how he worked as a successful trader, on food trucks and at his own market stall, and how a combination of things, starting with ill health in his family 12 months ago, led to him losing his home and business. “I lost everything,” He tells me, “and was sofa surfing and sleeping on the streets for months until I found a place in shared accommodation. I’m still there now. It’s ok, but I want to start working again and get my own place.” “So is the Moving On group helpful?” I ask. “It’s good because it helps me to stay positive,” he replies. “but I can’t get a job at the moment, because I lost my passport. I’m trying to get some money together to pay for a new one, hopefully I’ll get something from universal credit that will help. But I come here and see people getting help and finding jobs so it’s good for me.” We talk about what he’s doing to get his passport and how much it costs. He seems pretty focused, but realistic that it could be weeks before he gets one. “So what happens in the meantime? I ask. “I’ll just keep coming here whenever I can.” He says, “It’s really helped me to be confident about my future. I’m talking to the catering team about getting involved in some enterprise stuff, things that could help me to start my own business again. If not, I know there’s jobs that I can do, and I know I’ll get one. As soon as I have a passport.”

Having a Voice at Back on Track

This Autumn we offered a course at Back on Track called ‘Having a Voice’.  The course was the result of a recent ‘Service User Feedback Week’ – we wanted to know if people wanted to get involved with how Back on Track worked (for example, helping us out with publicity, writing articles, attending meetings, taking part in interview panels) and what skills they would need to go about it.  To encourage our learners to contribute more, they said they would need support with building up skills such as presentation skills and also build confidence in speaking to people in different situations.

The ‘Having a Voice’ course encompassed communication skills, presentational skills and most of all encouraged learners to value what they have to say rather than think they won’t be heard.  We did lots of work on telling our own story to others, and also contributed to the ‘Wigan Pier Project’ – giving a voice to those who don’t usually get their voice heard in society.  We also got to grill a member of the Senior Management team about all things Back on Track!  We created our own publicity materials, telling new learners about our Back on Track experience, which will be displayed in our IT room display.  Part of the course was to explore new ways to get involved, and we also researched our own local MPs and how best to contact them to make sure they are representing us.

We’ve had lots of positive feedback. One learner said ‘I felt like I was able to get my point across in a polite and formal way’, another said ‘I feel more able to express my opinions now without being aggressive’.

For the people on the course, and for anyone else who is interested in becoming more involved in how Back on Track does things, there will be opportunities in the future to have your say, and become more instrumental in how Back on Track moves forward and grows.  Watch this Space!

To find out more about the Wigan Pier Project visit https://www.wiganpierproject.com

To find out more about Back on Track’s service user involvement work, contact kate.hardy@backontrackmanchester.org.uk


Talking is important!

“Talking is important!” says Kate Hardy, our Wellbeing Coordinator. “Not just on World Mental Health Day – at Back on Track we provide a wide range of courses to help people build their skills and confidence, but it also helps to provide people with a safe environment where people can build coping strategies when life isn’t going so well and feel like they can talk to someone if they are struggling”.

Kate is currently running a weekly session called ‘Having a Voice’, where people can develop their communication skills and increase their confidence to speak out about things that are important to them. It’s part of a year round programme of activities that help people to improve their wellbeing, as Kate expalins;

“We try and incorporate the 5 Ways to Wellbeing into our work; Connect, Take Notice, Give, Keep Learning and Be Active; from volunteering, learning a new skill, trying mindfulness, or visiting a local tourist attraction – sometimes simple things can help when things get too overwhelming”.

Wellbeing display at Back on Track

This isn’t just Kates advice. Talking about your feelings is also the number 1 piece of advice on looking after your mental health according to The Mental Health Foundation website, where you can find loads more advice about achieving and maintaining good mental health. It’s worth a look anytime, not just on World Mental Health day.