Former gang members are being given a helping hand to turn their lives around thanks to a groundbreaking new scheme being run in the West Midlands.
The young people are being paired up with business people who will mentor them and offer them advice on following a new path and leaving a life of crime behind.
REAL Leaders, a community interest company based in Birmingham, in partnership with Leaders in Business, is running the scheme, called The Blue Project. It is looking for new mentors to sign up and learn leadership skills in a complex and challenging situation at the same time.
Richard Egan, founder of REAL Leaders, said: “Many of our young people are not bad people, yet when you grow up in a deprived area, you don’t meet career professionals, let alone have a chance to be mentored by one.
“Instead, they often meet drug dealers and gang members and that’s what they know. Our programmes make sure that these young people meet and spend meaningful time with career professionals.”
He added: “Mentors on the programme are good people, people that most people caught up in gang crime are not likely to meet.”
Richard said he had 12 mentors signed up to the scheme, which runs for 18 months, and is now looking to find four more.
The government has just announced a £300 million investment to crack down on gangs profiting from the trade in illegal drugs and Richard said The Blue Project would complement that, stopping talented youngsters from being sucked back into the world of drugs and crime.
“It’s a demanding and daring programme, but it’s also proving inspiring and exciting and it’s making a difference in so many ways,” he added.
Former drug baron John Burton, who has now turned his life around, is among those professionals supporting the project.
John started his criminal career as a teenager and served long stretches in prison for money laundering and cigarette smuggling as well as drugs offences. His story is featured in episode 2 of the Sky documentary Liverpool Narcos.
When he left prison in 2017, he launched Inside Connections, a community interest company dedicated to helping young people leaving custody, care or the armed forces find the right path intro training and employment.
He said: “I have been involved in criminality for a long time; I was involved in drugs internationally; I was involved in cigarettes internationally; I was involved in laundering large amounts of money. But for all that money, if I could change the 16 years that I had in prison sentences, I would change it tomorrow.
“If I was offered the opportunity to sit with a mentor who had done well for themselves in business and I knew they had made a lot of money and done it right I would have changed my life a long time ago.
“Unfortunately for me when I was a child and when I was growing up there was none of that around.”
He added: “The Blue Project is a fantastic opportunity to help 18 to 24 year olds. Just imagine, if we change one life then we’ve got something to be proud of, but I believe we can change a lot more lives.”
Sally Ward, director of operations at REAL Leaders, said mentors would also benefit greatly from the scheme, learning valuable leadership skills. “Using the skills that you’ve learned, you’ll be able to start to assess situations more quickly; think about how you can get the best out of the person you are working with and also consider what the best course of action might be to support that individual,” she said.
“It will not only change the lives of the young people that we link with but will also have the potential to change the lives of our learners too.”