“I love the privilege of seeing people’s lives transformed on a daily basis”

Stuart Otten, programme co-ordinator for About Face and Forging Ahead, recently spoke to Catherine Scott of the Yorkshire Post about turning his life around and the importance of supporting those with an offending history.

Back in the mid-1990s, Stuart Otten found himself in a very different set of circumstances than he does today. At that time, in his late teens Stuart set out to work as a doorman with the intention of making money but very quickly found himself involved in violence and drug dealing.

After many near misses within the organised crime community of Liverpool and also within the criminal justice system, Stuart has managed to turn his life around and is now helping others to do the same.

“I came from a stable happy home but was bullied when I was eight which really had an effect on me. I was determined never to be bullied again and became a bit of a rogue,” explains the dad of one. “At about 17 I took up kickboxing and met all these guys at the gym who seemed to have lots of money, fast cars, new clothes all the time and I decided I wanted a piece of that action.”

For a number of years Stuart admits he took and dealt drugs and was involved in violence. “I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did, and at that point it didn’t matter what it was. But I think even then I knew there was a better path for me.”

Even while he was still in the drugs scene he found himself studying and working within the social care sector and eventually qualified as a mental health social worker. But eventually he realised that he wasn’t really doing anything positive.

“My parents are religious and I turned my back on faith when I was about 16, but when I was in my mid-20s I found faith again.” The change came after what he knows was a drug-induced psychosis when voices told him to stop what he was doing and go to church.

“I knew it was as a result of the drugs, but it stuck with me. At the time I was in a very bad place mentally. I had suicidal thoughts and knew that I had to turn my back on my old life. I couldn’t do it on my own, you need a community around you to give you back your self worth.”

It was while attending a bible course in Sheffield that Stuart met his now wife Gemma, who was working at the Sheffield charity City Hearts at the time.

Drug abuse in his teens has left Stuart with an autoimmune condition which means he is often ill. “It is a side effect of the drugs, but in a positive way it is a constant reminder of the life I once led.” However, when he started to feel better he applied for as job as a case worker for the charity City Hearts, working within the male safe house modern slavery team based in South Yorkshire.

After learning that many of the young men City Hearts had supported found themselves in prison, Stuart approached City Hearts founder Jenny Gilpin to ask if he could investigate the potential of the charity supporting individuals who found themselves at the other side of the scales of justice to those normally supported by the charity. With Jenny’s permission, Stuart, 42, began to identify how City Hearts could be most effective in both addressing the current issues, and also fulfilling a decade long personal dream of providing support, advice and guidance to individuals who found themselves in similar situations to those he found himself in 20 years previously.

In 2018, About Face and Forging Ahead programmes were launched under the City Hearts banner and have gone onto help more than 100 men. Forging Ahead is a programme designed to provide paid and permanent employment to individuals seeking a life away from crime.

Working alongside Total Training Provision, HM Prison and Probation Service, South Yorkshire Police and a range of employers, a four-week training course is delivered, which provides individuals with the required skills and qualifications to move forward into employment.

Stuart’s work was recently nominated for the Howard League Community Award and South Yorkshire Police Force Award.

“I love the privilege of seeing people’s lives transformed on a daily basis,” he says. “To see their relationship with the police change and for them to tell friends and relatives is great.”

Stuart has published a partially fictionalised version of his story called The Switch, primarily to inspire those he works with and says the hardest part to write was about was how he used to behave when he was younger. His current goal is to see 1,000 young men and women labelled as ‘‘ex-offenders’’ get into employment and make a new start for themselves within the next five years through the City Hearts programmes he coordinates. He would also like to see the work they do rolled out not just across the region but nationally.

“If we can create one less perpetrator that means one less victim,” he says.

From the Yorkshire Post, to read the full article, visit https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/people/former-drug-dealer-turns-his-life-around-help-offenders-1996309