Fuelled by cannabis and cocaine, with a stubborn streak and a turbulent background of disputes and rows, teenager Lewis Batten was, he admits, “a bit of a nightmare”.
Just 18 but weighed down by draining bouts of depression and drugs, the Pilrig teen had little reason to feel particularly good about life. “I was young and ignorant,” he confesses. “I spent half of my time mucking about at school, I ended up like a recluse, not going out, minimal human contact.”
Now 22, Lewis has rarely looked back since he graduated from Edinburgh-based Venture Scotland’s year-long programme, which uses outdoor challenges to encourage vulnerable and troubled teenagers like him to conquer personal obstacles and learn a new range of vital life skills.
He’s far from being the only one. Since it was founded in 1987 by a group that included Edinburgh City Council leader Andrew Burns – who on Sunday will run the Edinburgh Marathon to raise money for the organisation – Venture Scotland has guided hundreds of young unemployed people out of the difficulties that threatened to swamp their future.
As part of a year-long “journey”, they conquer a series of gruelling outdoor challenges such as rock climbing, canoeing, mountaineering and gorge walking, all designed to encourage them to learn new skills and build confidence. Later they work on community and conservation programmes before leaving with a range of awards and certificates to show their progress.
“It’s not an easy option for young people, it’s very challenging,” says Cllr Burns, who skills honed while working with young people on outdoors courses to develop the organisation’s programme in its early years. Most have not been in an environment like this in their lives. But that connection with nature broadens their horizons. And the way young people are supported afterwards is fundamental to its success.”
The organisation works with 120 troubled young people every year. Eighty per cent stay to the end, often gaining awards and certificates on the way. Of that number, 88 per cent go on to find work, or move into further training or education.
Some, explains the charity’s new director Tam Hendry, arrive from the court system, others from social work or alcohol and drug agencies. While they volunteer to take part, most come with little experience of having to cope for themselves in the “great outdoors”.
“Some are offenders with drug problems or mental health problems,” Tam explains. “They get away from the trappings they are used to, they can’t text or facebook their pals, they are away from everything and everyone and they experience a series of challenges and adventures.” They arrive in the wilderness of Glen Etive at a sparsely equipped bothy which, more than 25 years ago Cllr Burns by chance saw being renovated and which prompted him to become involved in launching Venture Scotland.
With only basic facilities, it becomes a base for adrenalin-fuelled adventures supervised by the charity’s pool of 140 volunteers, among them Haddington architect David Brackenridge, 45, who gives up his own time to pass on his outdoor skills and help troubled youngsters.
“It can be extremely challenging, particularly at the start when the young people are pushing the boundaries,” he says. “It’s about showing them there’s another way to live their lives. It’s incredibly rewarding to see them change, learning to take responsibility and understanding the implications of what they do, learning to work in a team.
“And there’s something about sitting at a campfire at 11pm that encourages people to open up.”
For Lewis, there has been no looking back. Having finished his course, he travelled to Costa Rica and Nicaragua to volunteer with Raleigh International. He has now returned to volunteer with Venture Scotland, helping the next generation of vulnerable teenagers.
“I get shivers down my spine when I watch others going through the course, doing what I did,” he says. “I know how much it can change their lives.”
n For more about Venture Scotland, go to www.venturescotland.org.uk