Joel's story

Thursday, 20th April 2017

From homeless and desperate to getting a job and personal security. This has only been possible with critical help from The Big Issue that has completely transformed my life.

It’s Friday morning, and my last day working at international law firm, Freshfields. As my computer loads I start thinking about where I was 9 years ago and how I got to be here today.

I was just 21 when I decided to leave my call centre job for the bright lights of London. But almost immediately this turned into a living nightmare. My life came crashing down when thieves smashed their way into our flat while I was out and assaulted my girlfriend.

The authorities could not help to rehouse us and we quickly found ourselves homeless, traumatised and desperately scared for our future. We’d sleep anywhere on the streets that had cameras. We thought that if anything were to happen to us, at least there would be someone watching over us. We felt cold, isolated and abandoned. We were extremely frightened and completely lost.

The Big Issue gave me the tools to turn my fortunes around and helped me grow as an adult. Without this help, I don’t know where I would be. Your support really does help change lives and this starts when you buy a magazine from your local vendor.

I wanted to call my mum but we had a strained relationship after a major fall-out. I also felt ashamed of my situation. I didn’t want to get back in contact until I had something positive to show and prove myself.

After a few nights on the streets I turned to The Big Issue. It wasn’t an easy step but soon I was earning my own money selling the magazine.

The moment everything changed for me was the moment I walked through the door of The Big Issue office. I had no idea what to expect but the staff welcomed me like a family member. For the first time in a long time, I had hope.

The first few months were tough. It was down to me to work hard day in and day out selling on my pitch but I needed practical help and guidance to help me keep moving forward. Big Issue Foundation Service Broker Tom, was always there for me. He would sit with me weekly to discuss my magazine sales, health and general well-being. It was nice to have someone listen, offer emotional support and connect me to the help I needed. He got me a free hair-cut, an appointment with a podiatrist and signed me up to a confidence building training workshop.

The moment everything changed for me was the moment I walked through the door of The Big Issue office. I had no idea what to expect but the staff welcomed me like a family member. For the first time in a long time, I had hope.

The first few months were tough. It was down to me to work hard day in and day out selling on my pitch but I needed practical help and guidance to help me keep moving forward. Big Issue Foundation Service Broker Tom, was always there for me. He would sit with me weekly to discuss my magazine sales, health and general well-being. It was nice to have someone listen, offer emotional support and connect me to the help I needed. He got me a free hair-cut, an appointment with a podiatrist and signed me up to a confidence building training workshop.

After ten months as a vendor, I was put forward to take part in a new programme. The initiative allows vendors to sell their magazines once a week in a corporate environment, with training and development opportunities. In preparation, I was able to access The Big Issue Foundation’s Vendor Support Fund to get some new clothes. I still remember Tom taking me to Oxford Street to get a new shirt, tie and shoes!

The Vendor Support Fund offers financial support to Big Issue vendors who need help achieving goals. Vendors save and contribute up to 50% towards the cost of the item(s), we then grant the remaining amount from our donated funds to help them achieve that goal.

I spent eight months selling magazines at the offices of Freshfields law firm. The staff were so impressed by my work ethic and determination that I was offered various internships. Eventually, after three rounds of interviews and coached by Tom, I landed a full-time job in the billing department.

This job transformed my life. I gained security, and had started a career again. Finally I was able to plan for the future, rather than looking at everything as day-to-day. I was so proud at what I had achieved and I really wanted to tell my mum. I got back in touch with her and began to rebuild our relationship, she was so proud me.
Today may be my last day at Freshfields but it is far from the end of my journey. Next week I am starting a new job at another law firm and continuing my career. I’ve worked really hard to get here but it all started with that first step and helping hand from The Big Issue.

Selling The Big Issue was the most challenging yet rewarding thing I’ll ever do. Without even knowing it, selling the magazine was getting me ready to re-integrate fully back into society

I will never forget how desperate and vulnerable I was, but I’ll never go back. I embrace my history, and I continue to share my story to inspire others and show there is hope in even the darkest times.

Thank you so much to each and every person who takes action, supports vendors through buying the weekly magazine and seeing the value a life changing gift can make to the Foundation.

Supporting Big Issue vendors with their housing, finances, health, education and employment opportunities, is central to The Big Issue Foundation’s ethos. Help change a life today from just £5 a month.

Joel has an extraordinary journey – one that has taken him from a cramped orphanage in Belize to a village in Scotland, and from sleeping rough on the streets of London to carrying the Olympic flame. You can read his full story below. 

Words by Andrew Burns.

“From what I remember we were all pretty happy,” Joel explains. “But then nothing really bothers you at that age. There were lots of us in the children’s home. We’d sleep top-to-tail on these mattresses on the floor. I remember there was one girl, she was only about 12 or 13 but was the mother of the group.”

Four years of Joel’s life passed, days moved along slowly, unremarkably, until a Scottish couple walked through the door.

Joel was such a happy wee boy with the most beautiful smile. His sisters have always said his smile will get him anywhere in life. Royal Navy marine engineer George Hodgson was based in the tiny Central American nation at the time. He and his wife Shona already had two children when she was introduced to the Dorothy Menzies Childcare Centre, where Joel and his sisters were being cared for. They immediately fell in love with Joel, Yvette and Keisha. Not knowing they were siblings, Shona says their bond was clear.

“We were taking a bunch of girls out from the centre every second Saturday and one day there was a tiny young boy and he wouldn’t stop crying because he thought his sisters were being taken away without him,” Shona says. “That was little Joel. He was really just such a happy wee boy with the most beautiful smile. His sisters have always said his smile will get him anywhere in life.

“After one month of taking the kids out on little day trips I spoke with George about adoption and we thought we could help make their lives better. We knew we could give them a fresh start and got them enrolled in nursery and a school where I was working, until things were all finalised.”

After six months, the period of time when a relative can still ‘claim’ the children after the adoption process begins, they left the sunshine of Belize behind for the grey skies of Scotland. “I left to get the kids enrolled in school back home while George finished his final weeks in South America. We never looked back.”

The west coast of Scotland might have been gloomy compared to the sun-soaked beaches of Belize but Joel cherished his upbringing in the post-industrial village of Renton, West Dunbartonshire, in the shadow of Glasgow.

“My overriding memory of Scotland was seeing snow for the first time,” he says. “Belize is a very hot country and we came to Scotland in October. Just around Christmas I looked out the back garden and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I didn’t know what it was. I ran out in my little Y-fronts, so excited, and had to run back inside because it was so cold! That’s my earliest memory of Scotland.”

Alongside George and Shona’s daughters Cathy and Grace, the three children from Belize were welcomed with a warm embrace. “I loved Scotland, I still do,” Joel smiles. “I had an amazing childhood. It was a culture shock of course but I’ve got nothing bad to say. It’s a beautiful place and people are so friendly.”

A hard-working boy with a passion for sport – Joel won countless medals in athletics and football and grew up an avid Rangers FC supporter – he still speaks of his debt of gratitude to mum Shona, who raised the children on her own after George died of cancer in 1995, 40 years after joining the Navy and just three years after the family returned from Belize.

“I idolised him,” Joel says. “As soon as we got adopted I clung onto George. It’s never something I’ve been able to get over. I have to give my mum a lot of credit for raising all of us on her own. She never missed a football match, was always the loudest parent on the touchline, while also managing to keep us close to our roots in Belize. She’s a wonderful woman.”

“George was a very determined person, he was going to work, getting treatment for the cancer and still taking the kids to their football and dancing,” recalls Shona (pictured below with Joel). “Joel looked up to his dad, everyone did, and you see how determined Joel is now. He gets that from his dad. It was such a devastating loss for everyone. Having to tell a seven-year-old that his daddy has gone to heaven, just three years after starting a new life here, it was so tragic.”

Fast forward to 2012. Joel regained contact with his family and he was voted by his new colleagues to carry the Olympic Torch, an experience he describes as “the proudest day of my life”. Publicity around this introduced him to the Belize athletics team, who invited him to hoist their national flag in the Olympic stadium ahead of the opening ceremony.

After turning heads as a talented fledgling runner, Joel had the opportunity to represent Belize, the country he left over two decades ago, in his adopted home city of Glasgow at the 2014 summer’s Commonwealth Games.

Back in Scotland, his family couldn’t be happier with how Joel has lifted himself out of adversity. “I’m so proud of Joel,” says a beaming Shona. “He could have hit the bottom but refused to be dragged down. That’s just Joel all over, that’s our family.

“He dropped out of contact and it was difficult for everyone but he has turned his life around. He’s my boy. What he went through led to where he is now and everyone is so happy for him. The Commonwealth Games would be the icing on the cake for him.”

It hasn’t been easy but Joel has sprinted back from the brink. Whether he’s strapping up his shiny leather brogues or well-worn running spikes, this is a man well and truly standing on his own two feet. Now just try and stop him.

Supporting Big Issue vendors with their housing, finances, health, education and employment opportunities, is central to The Big Issue Foundation’s ethos. Help change a life today from just £5 a month.

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