“Aspire currently receives 20 per cent of its funding from the county council, and the prospect of a 38 per cent reduction at this point is pretty frightening,” admits Aspire’s head of fundraising, Jane Harris.
“But while we don’t want to underplay the importance of funding and fundraising to us as a charity, we are, thanks to a great deal of hard work in recent years, in a very strong position in terms of our social enterprise businesses, which saw profits rise by 76 per cent last year.”
Set up in 2001 to create work opportunities for ex-offenders, the homeless and those with a history of mental health issues, Aspire, based at St Thomas’ School in Osney Lane, Oxford, welcomed 150 new ‘clients’ last year, some of whom had not worked for seven years, but who were all willing to take up unpaid work in the hope of finding a way back into full-time employment.
Ms Harris said: “Our income from social enterprise and business last year rose to £294,000, up from £167,000 the previous year.
“That’s a rise of 76 per cent at a time when many businesses are lucky to be achieving around 20 per cent.
“This, together with grants and donations of £266k, means we are now in a position where our enterprises are covering more than 50 per cent of our charity’s costs.
“In terms of getting people back into employment, of the 150 clients working with us, 41 went into paid employment last year. Of our clients with a history of re-offending, 98 per cent did not re-offend last year, and 96 per cent of our clients with a history of Class A drugs or alcohol did not relapse.”
All Aspire workers have enhanced criminal records bureau checks and the charity has groundwork, property maintenance and cleaning contracts with a growing number of blue-chip organisations and businesses, from Siemens to Oxford University.
Ms Harris said: “People come to work for Aspire because they have made the decision that they want to get to another place to have a job, a home and support themselves.
“For most Aspire clients that means going straight out to proper, hard work – the real deal.
“Whether in our in-house fabric or furniture recycling business, or going out with one of our four teams in grounds maintenance, property services, removals and recycling, it means working hard for that day and six to nine months more, for nothing but the experience and their expenses.”
“Of course for some people this can be difficult,” Ms Harris said.
“Clients can lack confidence about going back into work after being away so long.
“They might worry about going into an environment where they feel they might be judged or stereotyped.
“But there is a feeling of community here at Aspire that is difficult to put into words, but which makes people feel they are working towards a goal, alongside others, supported along the way.”
Torn Light Colours, an indie band from Aspire, perform at September’s Refresh Festival, a free event for people recovering from addiction, at South Park, Oxford
Some clients stay with Aspire for a couple of months before finding paid work, others for as long as 18 months.
Once they are ready to apply for jobs, Aspire can help with applications and setting up further work experience, but securing a job rests with the client.
Clive Harris, 51, joined the charity last April after serving six years in prison.
He said: “I left jail, went into a hostel and was wondering how I was going to live when I met people from Aspire.
“I joined up, worked hard, learning new things and using my own building and painting skills and in July last year I secured a full-time job as the restaurant manager at The Big Bang in Oxford’s Castle Quarter.
“I work hard, I have an expensive, but lovely apartment and life is good – and this is down to the support and opportunities I have been given at Aspire. I still come in regularly to see them all. They are now part of my make-up.”
Selby Dickinson, who runs Oxfordshire County Council’s Hill End Centre in Farmoor, has been employing Aspire recruits to do cleaning and groundwork for a year. He said: “While some people might have concerns about employing people who have had challenging backgrounds, I can tell you that we have received nothing but excellent service from Aspire’s very hard working and friendly staff.”
As Aspire’s workers, like all of us, battled flood water to reach work last week, Ms Harris said the charity remains cautiously positive as it enters 2014.
She said: “Our businesses are gaining in reputation and worth, and we are confident that a couple more years’ growth could see us self-supporting. But we are aware of the impending cuts and the continuing need to attract more people to our services.
“Employment is the most sustainable and successful way out of poverty and hardship, and Oxfordshire has large numbers of local people striving to change their future prospects.
“What we need more than anything is for people and businesses to take our social enterprises seriously and employ us. Once they do they’ll see that Aspire and its clients are a really good investment.”
- For more on Aspire’s services, employing an Aspire trainee or fundraising for the charity, visit aspireoxford.co.uk
TRAINEE WORK PLACEMENTS.
OXFORD’S Westgate Shopping Centre has been supporting Aspire trainees on work placement for several years and currently has a former Aspire trainee in full-time work and another scheduled to start next week.
General manager Brendan Hattam said: “We have been taking Aspire workers for about three years now. They join our customer services team, helping shoppers with their enquiries, they also work in security at the centre and also provide housekeeping.
“I find they have a keenness to get on, they get on well with people and whether they stay on with us or not, it works as a two-way street.
“We have helped them with their CV and they have given us great service.”
CASE STUDY: HANNAH HIBBERT.
HANNAH Hibbert, 22, had experienced harrowing mental health problems and was living in an Oxford hostel, when her case worker referred her to Aspire.
Two years later she is working part-time and studying for a maths degree at Oxford Brookes University.
Hannah said: “It was pretty daunting going along to Aspire at first, as I had been through a lot and didn’t know anyone.
“But I went out with four people in a gardening crew and they were so kind and welcoming, I quickly made a friend and ended up staying with Aspire for 18 months.”
She added: “Aspire arranged work experience for me at Helen & Douglas House, which led to nine months’ paid work, and they also helped me get an interview at Vodaphone and I am now working 12 hours a week in their store in Oxford, which fits well with my studies.
“I had always intended to study at university, but my problems stopped that, so to be at uni is great. I am living in Waterperry with my sister and life is good – and this is mainly due to Aspire.
“They have helped me every step of the way.”