AT first glance, Aspire seems to be a thriving social enterprise scheme, with workers engaged in businesses from gardening and construction to growing and even selling recycled goods at the county’s markets.

But what marks Aspire out is its workforce.

Lee, 31, is a talented joiner with a passion for hard work — and a burning desire to stay out of prison and off drugs.

Matt, 42, is learning new skills as a gardener — after years of drinking himself senseless and sleeping rough.

And Brian, 27, is now working for an Oxford scientific instruments firm after being homeless.

They may not be the typical job applicants, but the charity said its workers were winning a reputation as hard-working and reliable among more of the county’s employers.

Partnership development manager Rick Mower said the charity gave people a “chance to build a new life for themselves through hard work”, though it had not been easy.

He said: “When we started out, our task was convincing local employers to even consider our service users.

“Now employers are calling us first, before they spend money on ads or recruitment consultants. That’s simply because our guys are super-motivated and really deliver at work — and why spend money finding exceptional staff when you can find them with us for free?”

Skills ranged from building to IT, he said.

“These are talented people, but they are also people who have been homeless, or addicted to drugs, or involved in crime.

“But they have literally come out the other side, stronger and determined not to go back to that, so work is even more important to them.”

He said “regular, respected, worthwhile and recognised work” built “confidence, self-respect and a sense of belonging, and employers get great workers”.

The charity was set up under the Aspire Foundation charity four years ago and is based at St Thomas’s School in Osney Lane, Oxford.

Clients include Oxfam UK, for gardening and grounds maintenance, and Oxford City Council, for work including the setting up of Gloucester Green Market, where Aspire has a stall.

The charity also helps people find work and is developing a business growing flowers, fruit and vegetables for retailers and homes dealing with The Burford Garden Company.

Lee, a 31-year-old father-of-two from Wood Farm, Oxford, said Aspire had helped turn his life around. He said “I got into drugs and then crime to pay for them.

“I first went to jail aged 16 and spent the following years going in and out. I was even in jail when my son was born. When I did get out and manage to stay out, and was even off the drugs, I fell and broke my hand really badly and was put on codeine painkillers.

“Before I knew it, I was back on crack and heroin, and robbing to pay for it.”

About four years ago, Lee decided to get clean again. He recalled: “It was a kind of last chance because I knew I was getting to the point where I thought no one would want to help me.

“With my probation officer’s help, I got on a college course and have just finished my second year studying to be a joiner. But there is so little work out there, it has been hard and challenging every step of the way.

“There is help to get clean, but very little help to get back into work.

“When dark thoughts started to kick in again, I got worried, and that’s when someone suggested I went to Aspire.

“I wasn’t sure at first as I thought of them as just being there to help the homeless, but I’ve learned they can really help you get trained and working.”

Aspire helped him apply for sponsorship to buy his own tools, with driving lessons, and to get a week’s work with construction firm Benfield & Loxley on a building in Turl Street, Oxford.

He said: “Now all I need is for a company to have trust in my abilities and offer me full-time work.

“They have given me the hope I needed and have made me feel rejuvenated.

“When my daughter, now seven, started school, she was asked what her daddy did and she didn’t know.

“One day soon, I want her to be able to say I am a joiner and eventually, when I have proved myself, I want to be a bigger part of her and her brother’s life.”

For information, contact Aspire Oxford on 01865 204450.