My Journey through CALM

by CALM Operations Director, Helen Stevenson

I know I probably shouldn’t say this but I kind of ‘fell’ into social work. It wasn’t something I had ever planned to do with my life (indeed I’m not the sort that would have a life plan!) but someone I liked once told me that they thought I would be good at it – so I gave it a go. I enjoyed my studies and once I qualified I did the usual ‘social workery’ things for a while before taking up a newly created post in a local authority run residential school – I believe I actually became one of Scotland’s first Educational Social Workers.

I myself had attended an English inner city Secondary Comprehensive school with a fair amount of disadvantage, aggression and violence – it was not without irony that I had found myself in a similar place in my first posting as a social worker. All of the (mainly) young boys were aged 12 to 16, all had been excluded from mainstream schools for ‘behaviour’ issues, all had complex case files, social histories and family backgrounds, many had been and probably were still being abused – emotionally, physically, sexually and by society, but their joy, humour, banter, energy, ‘characterfull-ness’ and hope – came by the bucket. After a very short period of time there I knew I loved it! Every day provided me an opportunity to be playful, reminisce, build relationships and be with people. I felt I was good at what I was doing. I felt I was making a difference and I felt cared for in what was often a very chaotic environment. From time to time, during moments of chaos, I would hold one of these young people. No-one had shown me how. Other colleagues would help, or I would help one of them. Sometimes we ended up on the floor, other times in chairs or outside; the young person would cry and sob, or be enraged or try to hurt themselves more. It was hard. Nobody liked it but you felt you needed to do something in this moment of crisis, and that feeling came from a basis of care and love for the young person and each other.

I was into my second year there as a worker when we first heard about this new training called CALM. From the onset it felt exciting – a pilot study of the training would be based in our school, and we would all be trained – including Jenny in the office! We would be split into groups and shifts amended to be able to run the school and have staff train in groups in five days of training – three days of theory and two days of restraint training. David Leadbetter, the originator of CALM, would deliver our training.

All I can say is that I had a profound experience on that CALM theory course. Not being a religious or particularly spiritual person at the time, I would actually describe my experience as ‘Evangelical’ – I know – a BIG statement to make! I was prompted and prodded to verbally contribute to discussion and debate over the three days; and for me as a young woman, newly qualified and fairly inexperienced in this key role, it was uncomfortable to be challenged. It certainly took me out of my comfort zone! Much to my own surprise I actually volunteered for an exercise on the topic of debriefing where I explored a real incident I had taken part in a few weeks previously. I became tearful as I reflected upon the incident, on how my colleagues had responded to me, and even on how they were questioning me during the debrief itself. I was also brought to a point where I came to realise that the restraint that I had initiated, had actually been caused by my own thoughts, beliefs, attitude and expectations, and if I hadn’t acted in the way I had, 14-year-old Ryan would not have been restrained for 20 minutes on the floor by two adults who were ultimately there to care for him. I had been brought to a very powerful point of reflection – and so had my colleagues.

Following the CALM training, the cohesiveness of our staff group was tangibly different. We seemed to have a new found ability to talk to each other openly and honestly and to dare to challenge one another’s practise in a way that not only felt safe but became desirable and ultimately demanded. It was a ‘richness’ that lasted for a long time after the training, a transparency I will never forget.

A number of years later I came to know – by complete accident – that David Leadbetter was looking to employ his first Training Officer. I went straight to the nearest phone and called him. Two evenings later I had driven 250 miles south and was being interviewed for the post – I had never been that spontaneous before and don’t think I have been since! It just felt right. I did have doubts about no longer working directly with young people, but also had a sense that if I could provoke a reflection in staff members in the same way that it had happened for me – that could make all the difference.

And so I joined CALM in 1999 – many, many years ago! I have since enjoyed many such similar profound experiences with CALM, as part of the CALM organisation and in delivering CALM training to others. Many of those experiences have been difficult, tearful and challenging – from delivering training to staff with folded arms who clearly don’t want to be there; to staff who take a real risk in training by being brave and disclosing a hard truth, to staff that offer to help you to your car so they can tell you something they didn’t feel they could in the training room.

Many of those experiences have also been joyous, hopeful, loving and truly uplifting. From staff who have said they wished they had this training years ago, to staff that have taken the time to call after training to tell us what happened next, to staff on courses who felt so positively affected that they joined our team – just like I did! One of my favourite bits of feedback came from an adorable, confident, young African American in girl in Georgia, US who told us, “I like CALM, it doesn’t hurt me” (She also told me I had a big ass for a white woman – but that’s a whole other story!)

Good training changes something – it evokes a thought, prompts a reflection, challenges a prejudice, provides a catalyst – it empowers people and it’s not just the CALM materials that enable this – the people within CALM make this happen every time they walk into the training room.

CALM has nurtured me, held me, supported me, (challenged me!) and seen me grow from a green social care worker, to a skilled facilitator of adult education, to a manager, supervisor, and ultimately a director, business owner – and I hope a half-decent leader.

CALM has been both my first love, my passion and my biggest challenge. It has provided me with the biggest belly laughs, the most beautiful memories, and a heartfelt sense of belonging. There have been highs and massive moments of jubilation and rejoicing but there have also been some significant and enduring lows. I have seen CALM come through a global financial crisis and now through a global pandemic both of which many would have reasonably expected to see the end of CALM.

But CALM lives on. And the reason we able endure and grow and adapt is because of our incredible people – both those within the organisation and without. The CALM community – their passion, their integrity, their compassion and their downright hard work – fill me every day with a massive sense of pride. I am so grateful to have been able to be a part of this incredible community from its beginning, and am truly excited to see what the next 25 years will bring us!

Here’s to all of it!


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