Arron Cousens started last year in a job which he didn’t enjoy, has gone through several periods of unemployment since, and, due to the cost of living crisis, found himself accessing the Good Shepherd for food and support.
He has now started the current year coming towards the end of a 12-week probation working at Marks & Spencer, looking ahead to a potential career in retail, and with far brighter prospects heading into 2024.
And that’s largely thanks attending the Good Shepherd and engaging with Key Worker Cath Flynn, whose role includes providing advice and support to those attending the food service to see if additional guidance can be offered to help them move forward in their lives.
“I had been coming to the Good Shepherd, on and off, for a lot of last year,” Arron, 25, explains.
“I had been in and out of work, mainly agency based, but just felt deflated after some dead-end jobs and had a really low self-esteem.
“I have done a lot of warehouse work since I was 16 or 17 and there’s nothing wrong with that, but for me it was probably too fast-paced – and I know my limits.
“Agency work can come and go and, during the times I was out, I found I was struggling and with the cost of living crisis things were just getting worse and worse.
“I needed help with food, but truthfully, the first thing that came into my head when I was thinking about the Good Shepherd was, ‘is it for me’?
“I think there is a stigma attached, isn’t there? And I also felt bad coming here because I wanted to work, but in the end, I just had no real alternative.
“I was planning on just coming here, getting my food, and then going, but it seems like Cath had other ideas.”
‘It Starts With A Meal’ is one of the cornerstone principles of the Good Shepherd because, while the need for food is often the magnet which draws people into requiring help from the charity, there are often other needs and potential breakthroughs that are waiting to be made.
Part of Cath’s role is to provide that additional support and signposting towards making those breakthroughs, and she can often be found lurking with intent around the dining service, engaging service users and chatting and working with them to develop.
That was exactly the case with Arron, who had expressed a desire to try and build a career in retail.
With Cath’s help, they pinpointed the Marks and Start programme run by the Prince’s Trust with Marks and Spencer, a training and mentoring scheme that gives unemployed young people the skills, experience and confidence they need to find a job.
Arron, who initially embarked on the scheme’s four week employability course, tells us more.
“I had been going to the Jobcentre but wasn’t really getting anywhere, and when you are looking for a job it all gets a bit draining after a time,” he says.
“It was Cath who mentioned this Prince’s Trust scheme with M&S, which I knew nothing about, and I was delighted to put my name forward.
“First of all, there was a taster session over in Birmingham, the chance for them to get to know us a little bit, meet the recruitment team from M&S, and do a mock interview.
“A lot of people were there, but luckily, I was one of the few selected to go into different areas – Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Merry Hill – to do the four week placement.
“I enjoyed every minute of it, I was so eager to learn right from the start, and after coming through that I was given a 12-week probation at the store in Wolverhampton.
“I have loved it, I am learning so many new skills, and have received a compliment off a customer for being friendly and patient as well as making some mistakes, but that is how you learn.
“I knew that it was going to be really busy over Christmas as well but that was something I was really looking forward to.”
Arron has been based largely in the Homeware section of the Dudley Street store, but was also keen to learn about life in the other departments.
His 12-week probation is due to finish shortly, after which it might be extended, might lead to permanent employment or – if not – at least he heads back into the job market with so much invaluable experience.
“It is all down to how I work and how I perform but even if nothing comes at the end, the experience has been so important,” he confirms.
“I had wanted to get into retail for so long, but so many places ask for people with experience, and it was M&S who have brilliant in giving me a chance.
“If I am not successful it is still a win-win because I have experience and it might well open more doors for the future.”
For Cath, seeing Arron flourish after landing this opportunity makes her work all the more worthwhile.
“Arron is such a great example of what we can offer to people here at the Good Shepherd,” she explains.
“He initially came to us because he was struggling on benefits and needed some food, but from there he engaged with us and we have managed to get him to a situation where he is doing something that he wants to do.
“We are so proud to see him moving forward with his life – it is really great to see and, as he says himself, it is like a flower blossoming.”
And, moving forward is precisely what Arron is now planning to do in 2024, with fresh focus and motivation for the challenges ahead.
“I am aiming for new heights now, although the first aim is to try and go on holiday, which I haven’t done for nine or ten years or so,” says Arron, who is now planning to donate food to the Good Shepherd in the future as a personal thank you.
“I want to be able to experience that freedom again.
“I’ve already enjoyed the benefits of regular work again, being able to afford things like a phone and a pair of trainers.
“Being on benefits kept me stable but not working was depressing and dragged me down, I felt stuck in one place.
“Now I have a job it’s just so different and it’s all down to Cath, I feel so lucky that she came up to me at the Good Shepherd and started to chat.
“I have a purpose now, and a motivation, and I can get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and look forward to the day ahead with optimism for the future.”