Lesley’s Story

I joined Hestia in 1989 and left in 2015. I worked across many different departments in my time.

I came in as the Deputy Director of the whole organisation and held that role for a long time. The organisation wasn’t as large back in the day – we only had about 80 service users.

Then I became the Director of Operations and later the Director of Marketing and Development. I was the organisation’s second ever woman in a senior role at the time.

Before coming to Hestia I worked with other charities, supporting offenders, gypsies and travellers, and women experiencing domestic abuse. When I fell pregnant, I stopped working, but joined local community groups for something to do. That was when I first got involved with supporting the homeless. I loved it. It didn’t feel like work.

It feels good working with people. This sector as a whole – there is a pioneering feeling to it. You are breaking new ground. I helped open some of Hestia’s first HIV and AIDS services and open Hestia’s first domestic abuse refuges. The Villiers Road project we opened in 1992 was the first of its kind in the country, providing specific mental health support for Asian men and women. People would come from across the country to see how we were operating that service.

Some of my time was spent as the Head of Service User Involvement and finally, in 2008, I helped set up the Volunteering department. Many of the volunteers were service users, and some of them still volunteer now.

Involving the service users in the co-production of the services was one of the most important things Hestia ever did. To understand people’s needs, you have to ask them and work with them. I remember a university phoning me because they were designing an all-weather sleeping bag for those who were street homeless, and they wanted my opinion. I said – ask the people who are homeless for their opinion instead; they are the ones experiencing the problem!

I learnt that I enjoyed going and finding out what it was people needed to recover and developing new projects based on that.

One of the last projects I helped set up before I retired was the Good Energy Club in Kingston, which supported people living with challenging mental health to take up exercise. Years ago, my mother was supported by mental health services in the borough. She died in the 90s and going back there and setting up a project to support people with their mental health was like coming full circle.

A highlight in my career was a bike ride along the Thames with the Good Energy Club members. They were helping me mend my bike and giving me advice. They were the ones looking after me.

What I learnt at Hestia is that everyone has something to offer and aspirations they can meet, regardless of their experiences or circumstances. Everyone has a role to play. It’s a good feeling working alongside people and seeing that take shape. The thing is, we all are, or all will be service users at one point or another.

A few months after I left in May 2015, I was diagnosed with cancer. Although I was ill, I’m OK now, and I’m enjoying my retirement with my husband, filling my days with tai chi, table tennis and gardening. I live in a little hamlet, where everyone has their own orchards and makes their own cider, so I get to do a bit of tasting every now and again!

I still get invited to Hestia events so get to catch up with old friends. I’m proud of my career, but when I started, I thought we could end homelessness in a few years. Now it seems like things have got worse. I try and hold hope that things can still change. There are a lot of young people who hold that hope for change too. Who knows what the future holds?

Which book impacted me the most?

Tim Lott’s book Scent of Dried Roses. Lott wrote the book about his mother taking her own life. It’s about people who don’t even know they have got depression. That always had an impact on me. Partly because, when he was describing his family, that could have been my family.

Which film impacted me the most?

The Lady in the Van, based on the screenplay by Alan Bennett. I once had a very memorable conversation with Alan Bennett after Mary Shepherd, the woman who The Lady in the Van was written about, died. She had some money and he wanted to give it away to a homelessness organisation and chose us!

Which song impacted me the most?

Streets of London by Ralph McTell. It’s all about homelessness on the streets and it resonates with the work I’ve done.