Craig Neesam, Mentor, Restorative Justice Practitioner, Brighton

Craig Neesam, 49, Mentor, Restorative Justice Practitioner, Brighton

Tell us a bit about your background

I was a misguided, mixed up angry young man. I was first sentenced when I was 17. And I kept being sentenced until I was in my late 20s.

I got parole in 2005. My experience before was that I always got pulled back into a dysfunctional lifestyle and I was very angry about everything. I really wanted to reach out and join a Youth Offending Team, in other words to work with them, but I knew they wouldn’t take me. I wasn’t emotionally ready for that. And they kept on turning down my applications year after year which made me feel sad.

I knew I had to change but I didn’t know how to make that happen.

How did it begin to happen?

I had a serious problem with drugs and drink. I finally went to Rehab and that was the beginning of the change. A lot of self-help followed. I started to learn about myself and why I was the way I was. I practised the 12 Steps. I actually became an extra for a while too – doing a lot of TV and film. I was in Eastenders as a local in the market or the pub. It was nice for my mum! She was proud that I’d sorted my life out. She’d seen what struggles I’d been through. I had a decent mum and dad so that was hard for them.

How did you sort your issues out?

Lots of forgiveness and lots of accountability. I accepted what had happened and saw why it had happened. The bottom line was that it could and does happen to hundreds of kids and I chose that route.

I realised that before my mum and dad got divorced, there was a lot of drinking and fighting. And a lot of anger. That disturbed me and confused me as a child. I did a lot of soul-searching about it all.

When did you start with abob?

Six years ago. I actually met my partner, Jess within a year of working with abob and we have a four year old daughter, Bethany and a ten year old, Maicie in Liverpool from another relationship. I was actually at a friend’s meditation group which I’d been going to for several years, and someone brought a mentee to the group. Fate stepped in.

I had really been wanting to mentor young men who had had similar experiences to me for a long time and abob seemed to be an ideal opportunity to do that.  So I did the Beyond The Hero weekend pretty soon afterwards.

How was the rites of passage weekend?

It was great because I felt so ready to do this kind of work. It was men being real with each other. The connection between us was so good. I saw what a huge difference it made to the young men as well who were going through it. I was moved by men being genuinely caring for each other.

It also helped me massively with expressing my anger. In 12 Steps, anger is frowned upon, whereas with abob, you learn to express it healthily. Anger is not viewed as being wrong but rather men are encouraged to express it within a safe container.

And you have now mentored young men many times?

Yes, it’s great to be of service to young men and older men too. I think I’m useful to young men who are in a similar place around destructive behaviour as I was when I kept being sent back to prison. I’m an example for them of someone who has come through to the other side and that is inspiring for them, it helps them see there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I basically let young men know they are not alone.

Also abob is not hierarchical in structure so the young men don’t have to rebel against it. It’s an equal playing field. When the young men have gone through their mentoring, they can start volunteering for abob themselves. I let them know that I am simply there for them. And that if I can do it, they can do it.

When I’m mentoring, I prefer to meet them face to face but sometimes it’s a phone call. I let them know too that they can change their peer groups and that helps. It’s very similar out there as it was when I was involved with drugs. There was still a form of County Lines.

My mentoring of young men goes into double figures but in terms of how many I’ve talked to – it’s more like a hundred.

Have you been mentored within abob?

Mark Nightingale helped me a lot. For instance, when my mum and dad died, he supported me re grief. I also managed to be with my mum at the end of her life, I heard her last breath, that was an honour. In many ways grief has been beautiful to express with men.

What’s different about abob?

We have no airs and graces, we’re very real with each other. If we see bullshit, we call it out. We are able to give and take support. That’s important. We want to celebrate young men and who they are. That’s what we do at the Homecoming event after their mentoring finishes. Their family and friends can witness them being celebrated for who they truly are.

How do you see your future with abob?

I want to be an elder in the village. I want to keep the fire burning for the young men.

You do talks and presentations about abob?

Yes, I enjoy that and getting organisations or the public to understand more about what we do at abob.