SSJ’s Academy is Changing Lives

The Society of St James Academy is really starting to take shape ready for the big launch in 2024.

Lucy and Rebecca, our newly appointed Academy Leads, have been working hard over the last few months to design a learning pathway that will appear on the new Academy timetable alongside sports & hobbies and volunteering & employment activities.

The challenge is of course to find the content that will appeal to the people we work with whilst growing their self-belief, self-esteem and basic life skills (See blog from 17 Feb).

Lucy and Rebecca have developed, with the service users help, a really exciting timetable that includes:

  • Eat Good, Feel Good
  • Get Crafty
  • Healthy Mind, Healthy Body
  • Independent Me
  • Skill-up

Each with optional qualifications attached if the participants feel ready.

I caught up with Neal, resident at one of our homeless hostels, so he could tell me about how he has seized every opportunity since being at the hostel and how important these new academy activities have been to his recovery.

Why is the Academy so Important – Neal’s Story


Neal found himself homeless last Christmas after a series of traumatic events left him spiralling out of control.  He was self-medicating with alcohol to cope with what was a breakdown.

The street homeless team thankfully made contact with Neal and got him off the streets and into temporary hotel accommodation during the cold weather outbreak.

A diagnosis

During this time Neal was diagnosed as neurodivergent with a bipolar disorder and scored high on the autistic spectrum.  He was supported with his diagnosis through medication from a GP and supported with his alcohol addiction by SSJ’s Recovery Workers at the Recovery Hub.  Neal tells me it’s a relief to now understand his own behaviours and reflected on his childhood:

I remember recoiling from others’ touch and having periodic meltdowns as a child but it was a different story in the 70’s, you were booted out into the playground and left to fend for yourself. Until getting the help I needed I had four responses to trauma, fight, flight, freeze or fawn”

Moving to the hostel

Neal was moved from the hotel in late January and offered a place at SSJ’s homelessness hostel in Portsmouth which in his own words “is probably one of the best things that could have happened to me’ and where he met Lucy one of our Academy leads.

Lucy reflected during the interview on how Neal worked all his life up until becoming homeless and in fact used to walk past the hostel everyday on his way to work and never even knew what it was.  It is now such a big part of Neal’s story ‘it has become an iconic building for me because of the changes I was able to undergo there’.

The support

Neal was quick to praise the staff at the hostel who he tells me are always available to provide support on the bad days.

you can just run into the office and they just jump into supporting you. They have taught me how to compartmentalise when triggered.  In the middle of the night, if I’m having a bad one, I can roll into the office and by the time I walk out I feel myself again’.

The Academy and meaningful activity

Luckily for Neal, his stay at the hostel has coincided with the launch of the Academy learning pathway (currently branded Re-Set).  I asked Neal to talk me through his experiences of the new timetable of activities:

The cooking group has been a big help teaching me how to cook nice meals and helps me financially as well.  We all cook for ourselves at the Registry in a communal kitchen but this brings us together to cook.  We’ve cooked Hunters Chicken, Korean Chicken and some have brought their own cultures into the group, we cooked Jollof Rice the other week, so delicious”.

Neal tells me that in the 45 minutes before cooking they cover different but related topics including things like food hygiene, nutrition, chemical awareness etc and he will be taking his food hygiene and dangerous substances certificates shortly.  Neal told me his favourite course so far however has been ‘Dealing with Challenging Behaviour’

because dealing with people displaying challenging behaviours is the story of my life”.

I asked Neal if he had had a chance to put what he had learnt into practice.

yes, a conversation with my other half became heated the other day, I used what I had learnt and walked away saying that I would come back in 5 min.s, would remain visible so she could see me and then I would return.  It completely diffused the situation. By the end of it, we didn’t know what we had been arguing about!”

I also asked Neal who he is going to cook for and he said he would cook Hunters Chicken for his family as soon as he has the chance.

Neal trying out his new cooking skills.

The Future

Because of these Academy courses and the work he has been doing with Support and Recovery workers he has a clearer plan for the short-term. Neal will be volunteering at SSJ’s Social Enterprise Café in the Park from mid-June and plans to support Lucy in the classroom once he has moved onto more permanent accommodation. Neal has developed a keen interest in supporting people who, like himself, started self-medicating with alcohol but now want to turn their lives around.  He believes volunteering in the Academy will be a great introduction to doing this and is very much looking forward to starting.

Neal has also developed an interest in awareness raising for those suffering with homelessness and addictions. He has been accepted on a film making course and his film will premiere at the Recovery Festival later in the year. He hopes to put these new skills to good use and help SSJ to raise awareness.

Neal believes that without all these opportunities that have been offered to him since arriving at the Registry, he would not be here talking to us now. He tells me

Lucy is an absolute diamond, someone I will remember for the rest of my life.”

We all wish Neal the best of luck for his future.

Why is the Academy so important – We need your help!

Neal’s story demonstrates how important the academy concept is to the people we work with.  Evidence suggests that regular meaningful activity can be used to replace drugs or alcohol in particular because they work on the reward pathway in the brain – this releases the feel good chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. For those with mental ill health, offending behaviour and/or homelessness meaningful activity is crucial to helping to build a sense of identity away from their issues and a sense of belonging to their community.

We have received an anonymous contribution to help start the academy and local fundraisers ‘A Touch of Magic’ are aiming to raise £10,000 this year to support the Academy in Portsmouth.

Support for our Academy is gathering pace but we need more support to be able to offer the variety we wish to offer and know is needed.

How can you help?

A donation of just £15/month could support 1 hr of education per month for someone who has been homeless.  Download our standing order form here or donate directly to our Society of St James Re-set donation page here.