Sun. Jul 3rd, 2022

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Ex-Army member’s support network boosts veterans’ mental health

3 min read

No one knows better than Ger Fowler how important Veterans in Crisis (VICs) – the organisation he founded with his own money and a £10 pay-as-you-go mobile phone – is for the people it supports.

Ger joined the Army at 16 and was diagnosed with PTSD after being caught up in a terrorist attack in Northern Ireland. But after leaving the forces, he realised how much he missed the camaraderie and founded VICs – a support network for veterans in Sunderland.

Since launching in 2018, VICs has developed into a hub offering comradeship along with active pursuits like paddle boarding, surfing and rock climbing, as well as talking therapy and benefits advice. And with the help of money raised through The Health Lottery, Ger employs trainer Sam Neil to lead daily military-style workouts, which do wonders for the veterans’ mental health.

“Sam’s invaluable to us,” says Ger. “This money has helped so much, because when I started out I had no office and now we’re in a four-storey building.

“I started this because I could see so many veterans not getting any help. One of the first people I supported was a retired man who’d been put in a hostel; he thought he’d be there until he died. Within a week, I’d got him into sheltered accommodation and made sure he was getting the right benefits.”

Everyone who volunteers or works at VICs is a veteran, so when a new person walks through the door they get support from someone who knows what they ’re going through. And with Christmas coming up, there’s plenty more support in store.

“On Christmas morning we deliver 100 three-course meals with presents to veterans and their families in our removal van,” says Ger. “Each one is delivered with a chat on the doorstep.”

For fellow support organisation Leep1, which helps people with learning difficulties and celebrates what they can do rather than what they can't, the festive season is a time to reflect on achievements.

“We do a lot of campaigning to help get our voices heard, and we help people learn skills and gain experience and confidence in our cafe,” says Susan Hanley, CEO of the Leeds initiative, who was born with Down’s syndrome and is passionate about opening up opportunities for people with learning disabilities.

Project manager Mandy Haigh adds, “It’s about changing the public’s perception and showing people that everyone has an ability to achieve something. With the Leep1 cafe, people learn the life skills to gain employment by working here for a year, then they take their exams and move into employment.”

But Leep1 (“Leeds People First”) isn’t just about the cafe. This year, the group has designed, produced and sold clothes with its distinctive “AND” (“abilities not disabilities”) logo, as well as writing a book together – and it has big plans to further expand its activities in 2022.

All those involved agree that lockdown was tough, but Leep1 offered support online with a Facebook group and activities such as group fitness.

“I had a meltdown,” admits Susan. “I felt awful, but at least we could still have daily chats and workouts like yoga.”

The Leep1 team is grateful for the funding awarded by People’s Health Trust from money raised through The Health Lottery.

“The funding we’ve received is so important because we can see how much it’s helping people," says Mandy. "We’re hoping next to take on some of our volunteers as paid staff.

"I’d like to say thanks to everyone who’s bought a ticket for The Health Lottery, because the money raised goes towards such worthwhile causes.”

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