In ten days’ time I will set off to walk the equivalent of around seven half marathons in seven days as I walk the West Highland Way with my old friend Douglas Stevenson.
I am doing it to raise money for Cyrenians, the homelessness and inclusion charity which, as regular readers of this column will know, is a cause close to my heart.
For many folk, 96 miles over seven days would be a skoosh. For an unfit 55-year-old (I know, I don’t look my age…!), it’s a more daunting task. I’ve done some training, including four Munros in five weeks over the summer and a few shots in the gym, but is still going to be a challenge.
It shouldn’t have to be, though. I was fit once. In 1979 I was even Fife Schools under-17 800 metre champion! But work and family took precedence and now I am sore and slow when once I was fit and fast. There are people much older than me who are much fitter and not because of any huge regime. They just didn’t let things slide and let work take over.
Who am I to complain though? Nothing I struggle with compares to the challenges faced by some of those Cyrenians has the privilege of journeying with. People like Beth, who struggled with alcohol from the age of 11 to escape the abuse she experienced at home. Her chaotic existence led to many self-destructive decisions. After coming to learn to cook for herself with Cyrenians Food Education programme, she’s gone on to pass cooking qualifications and is now a cooking tutor. She said to me: “Now I believe in myself again, nothing is impossible.”
Or Derek, who worked all his life but in retirement found himself alone. He became lost, alone, depressed. His house became unhygienic, his debt spiralled and he was about to be evicted. Cyrenians helped him sort out his debt, access a pension he didn’t know he was entitled to, find local groups to join, get his house cleaned and support for him to keep it clean. He said to me: “I’ve found out who I am again.”
Or Jean, who struggled as single parent and lost her confidence to go out at all. To all intents and purposes her young daughter was her carer. She attended one of Cyrenians’ employment courses but it didn’t work out as her anxiety was too high. Instead she was encouraged to volunteer at a local community project. The following year she tried again. This time she completed the course and got a job in a shop which she still has. Her daughter says now she’s never in when previously she could never even get her out the door. Both of them feel liberated by the change in Jean.
Cyrenians may have travelled with Beth, Derek and Jean but we didn’t change them; they changed themselves by finding the courage and resilience to believe they could. We just committed to be present, focus on their ambitions and to never give up on them. The newly appointed Scottish Government’s Homelessness and Rough Sleepers Action Group is challenged with ending homelessness. Beth, Derek and Jean remind us the causes are complex but the solutions need to focus on prevention, patience, presence and be people-focused.
Beth, Derek and Jean are just three of the 3,864 people Cyrenians journeyed with from tough realities to better places last year. Their resilience is what will keep me going even when my old bones say stop!
Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians. To sponsor him visit https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/ewan-aitken