Job role: Executive Director of Development and Sponsor of the LGBTQ+ Network

I studied Psychology at the University of Surrey. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I had an interest in people. I did a placement year as a youth justice officer, which involved a lot of reading. I stumbled upon a book called Bury Me In My Boots, by Sally Trench, about her time spent with Anton Wallich-Clifford, setting up the Simon Community, an independent charity for homeless people. After finishing my degree, I bizarrely ended up seeing an advert for a volunteering role at the Simon Community. I applied.

Gayle and her original copy of Bury Me In My Boots

As soon as I started volunteering , I fell in love. I lived in the night shelter with the community, which included anyone who was homeless or needed support. It was very much a community. The backbone of the organisation was the people who lived there and the part time volunteers who used to live in the community, people who had been homeless and were now rehoused and ‘giving back’ to community – they were called ‘co-workers’. They told me and the other volunteers everything we needed to know. They kept it running.

I was a full time live in volunteer with the Simon Community for two and a half years, and I knew from then that I wanted to work in social care. It was such an exponential learning curve for me.

It was the point I realised that the line can be so thin between someone coping and not coping – how not having a support network can lead to destructive behaviours, to loss of employment, to a relationship breaking down and then homelessness.

I ended up becoming a Community Leader, and I ran a farm in Kent where some of our service users lived. My time there holds a very special place in my heart; it taught me about the power of human connection.

After I left, I worked all across social care, from supported housing and hostels, to developing women’s services and young people’s services, to running blood-borne virus clinics and needle exchanges. I’ve worked in the most rural of places to big towns and cities.

In every position I’ve held, I’ve taken the experiences of those first few years with me. I’ve learnt that if someone is in despair, at the bottom of a hole, you don’t try and pull them out. You get in with them and you work a way out together.

I’ve been at Hestia for six years now. In 2016, I became the Director of Operations. Everything I learnt still filters through to what I do now: the peer support, the co-production, the focus on helping people achieve their aspirations. At the Simon Community, we always ate together. I talk to our support staff now about sitting down and having a cup of tea with their service users – it’s a small thing, but I think it’s essential to create that safe space, a communal experience where you are simply people, on the same level.

These things matter. When you work in this sector, everything you say and do has an impact. I often say to our support staff that you might be working in an office at a service, but you are working in somebody’s home. It’s critical that you respect that. You need to build trust with the people you’re supporting; if you don’t have trust, you don’t have safety, and safety underpins The Hestia Approach.

While I primarily oversee Hestia’s mental health and offender services, I believe that mental health and well-being runs through everything that we do.

There are differences in what causes people’s crises, but the way you work with trauma is the same. It’s all about empowerment, social connectiveness, trust and safety. They are all vital for people on their recovery journey.

Recovery isn’t a goal, it’s a non-linear path - a process. Our main part in that process is to listen to people’s experience and support them to make their own choices. At the end of the day, they are the experts in their own lives.

It is so fulfilling seeing people achieving their goals and reaching their full potential. I’m inspired by people’s resilience. I see it across all of our services; people have had awful life experiences, but they are still managing, holding onto hope and looking to the future. It’s phenomenal. Their resilience is where my own resilience comes from.

It’s also so inspiring seeing the staff I work with every day. I get to go and see them so proud of the work they are doing and the outcomes they are having with service users. I cannot fathom doing anything else with my life.

Things have changed in the 40 odd years that I’ve been alive, and people are more understanding of others in different situations to themselves. But there is still a lot of change needed. There are still people being discriminated against, be it for their mental health or otherwise. My children are interested in the work I do and I hope I’ve instilled that understanding in them and that I’ve raised them never to judge others.

I’m bringing up my children with my wife so they have parents in a same-sex relationship. I’m open and transparent with them, and encourage them to ask questions. The thing I’m most proud of is that they can’t comprehend why anyone would discriminate against others. That’s so important. It gives me hope that we can be in a better world going forward.

I’m looking forward to Hestia’s future too. We’ve had massive growth over the last 15 years and more opportunities lie ahead. Personally, I’m keen to develop more of our mental health crisis out-of-hours services, like our Recovery Cafes. They are a safe place for people to go when other services are shut – crisis isn’t constrained to Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. Without a doubt, these crisis services save lives.

In 2020 we opened the Folkestone Haven, our first mental health service - a crisis service - outside of London, in Kent. It’s close to where I live now, and close to the farm I lived on with the Simon Community. Right back where it all began.

Which book has impacted me the most?

Bury Me In My Boots - I think I read it in one go. I still have my copy, held together by a lot of Sellotape. It’s what really started me off in thinking about the opportunity to get involved in the social care sector. I can remember reading it and just being so excited by the thought of that kind of opportunity.

Which film has impacted me the most?

I like watching films to escape but the one that had the most impact on me, and I cried for 4 hours none stop afterwards, was Sophie’s Choice. It’s set in World War Two and a mother is rounded up by the Nazis and she’s told right there and she has to choose which child to keep, and she chose her son because he’s blue-eyed and blonde-haired and she thought he’d survive better, and gives up her daughter. It’s really intense and I remember thinking about the desperation and impossibility that some people experience and where that reliance comes from to just survive. 

Which song has impacted me the most?

I really love a song sung by an actress in Grey’s Anatomy. Sarah Ramirez sings The Story - it’s not her song, it’s older - but the way she sings it is amazing. It’s about just being meant to be with someone and I think because it’s about an LGBT relationship in a mainstream show, it really meant something. I actually played it at my wedding.