Simon's Story

30 Voices interview with Simon Firth, Patron, Ambassador, and one-time Chairman

In his own words:

I have found my 30 years with Alabaré quite invaluable. Working with Alabaré has been fascinating. There is no doubt that it is a fantastic organisation doing so much good, working with vulnerable people to make sure that their lives are improved so that they can move on back into fulfilling independent lives. I have thoroughly benefitted from my relationship with this organisation, and I have also gained far more by being involved with Alabaré than Alabaré has ever got from the work that I have done with them. I don’t think that I clearly understood the deprivation and difficulties that there are in our society until I met them through Alabaré. And that has been a great lesson for me.

My involvement with Alabaré started about 30 years ago when I was thoroughly ambushed! Henry Collins, who farms locally, was at that time also a Trustee of the Alabaré Community and my wife and I were asked to go and have supper with them. Quite unsuspecting, off we went to find that John and Lee Proctor, Alabaré’s founders, were also invited. Some time during that evening, I accepted that I would become not only a Trustee but, indeed become, Chairman of the Trustees. John would be Chief Executive, and he didn’t want to have the burden of being Chairman as well. He, with his immense energy and his inexhaustible enthusiasm, would drive the expansion of Alabaré, and I would chair the Trustees. The turnover at the time was probably around £5,000, so it was a very small organisation.

Sadly, in 1999 I had a heart bypass, and having been very much involved, I had to disappear for quite a long time. When I came back in 2000, Andrew Lord had been appointed as Chief Executive, and John became Chairman. I didn’t return to being a Trustee but was just a volunteer, glad to be involved when I could. The combination of John and Andrew was unstoppable, and they were both driving and expanding Alabaré. I forget which year it was, but in one year the turnover went up by £1m. A lot of new homes were created, which turned out to be the right thing to do because that produced the income that allowed everything to expand and be used for the good of those in need.

Barnabas HouseIn 1991 our first house, Barnabas House, was purchased, and then in 1994, Barnards Cross, which was a breakthrough in many ways, provided a home for our Emmaus Community for adults who had learning difficulties.

One night I was doing a sleepover at Barnabas House, and the door banged at about half-past ten at night, and there was a bloke who I was sure was drunk. I got him in and made him a cup of coffee, and sat him down. It was a tragic story. He had been a cashier in a bank in Marlborough; he walked out one morning to get his sandwiches, was hit by a car and had severe brain damage. It changed his character; he went home and became angry. In due course, he had to leave home, leave children and was literally on the streets. When I met him, he was walking down to Plymouth for some reason, but he ended up at Barnabas House that evening, totally bereft.



Barnabas House BedroomHe was taken into Barnabas House, and I can’t say that mentally he became better, but physically, he did, he was given all the mental health and medical help he needed, new clothing and all the rest, and when I saw him a month later he left as a completely transformed person. The Alabaré staff had worked this magic, offering outstanding support, love and care to everyone in their care. He could hardly talk, and although he seemed drunk all the time, he wasn’t. Alabaré’s care and love transforms lives and gives people an opportunity to live again.

A home became available in Plymouth, and it was decided that it would be dedicated to veterans. Throughout all of our projects, there were veterans who needed special care and a different approach some time from everyone else. There was certainly a need because they were overwhelmed with applicants to move in. Gradually, more Homes for Veterans were opened across the South West. This was something close to my heart, so I became the Chairman of the Ambassadors in Bristol in order to start the expansion of the Homes for Veterans work.

Right from the start, I was amazed at the impact Alabaré made on people’s lives. I will tell you about one person who had been a Corporal with me in Northern Ireland, a very upright, smart soldier. When I saw him years later, there was this person with bowed shoulders, long hair, unshaven, a complete wreck. He had fallen out with his family and his children, which is a story you hear so often. He had had to leave home, and after a period of sofa-surfing, he had ended up sleeping rough, which was a tremendous comedown from the proud person I had known. He became a resident in one of the Gloucester Homes for Veterans.

Six months later, at a regimental event, there he was in his blazer, smart, upright, proud, and he was back with his children, reunited with them, living independently, and he had a job as a bricklayer. His life had been transformed. It was an example of one person who I knew personally, whose life had been completely transformed.

Why was I involved with Alabaré? In short, I was completely sold on the culture and wholly awe-inspired by the work that was being done by staff and volunteers. But what could I do? The one thing that happened was that I had some valuable contacts either through the Army or the Bath and West Society. So, I found myself very involved with raising funds for Alabaré, which still goes on. It was a crucial time because always Alabaré had overworked what their money could support. They were always, and still are, needing extra support.

Simon outside Firth HouseIn 2011 I became Chairman of the Gloucester Ambassadors and of Somerset sometime after that. We aimed to create teams of Ambassadors in each place to support the work of the local homes. The Lord Lieutenants know their county, and each individually helped us in our areas. So, in Bristol, for instance, the Lord Lieutenant there introduced us to several people who had access to funds and potential supporters. Quite considerable sums of money came through that, but it wasn’t just money, it was the support they gave us, and some of them are still around now. It was the same in Gloucester, where the Lord Lieutenant was incredibly supportive and introduced us to all the right people. We used the Soldiers of Gloucester Museum as our base and soon collected a good gang of people to help out.

Alabaré’s work in Wales started because the Lord Lieutenant invited me to lunch with a few others, and then there was a dinner. Having made helpful contacts, it all developed from there.

Can I make a couple of other points?

John Proctor is an amazing guy, virtually unstoppable. I remember when I was Chairman that one day he came to a meeting, and he said he thought we needed a home for ex-offenders. So, as Chairman, I said it’s a good idea, could we have a Business Plan and forecast of income and expenditure, and what sort of home are you looking for? And he said, “No, no, no, I’ve bought it! There are already three ex-offenders in it!”  That was his style. Also, on one occasion, we went to visit an old people’s home that was being sold, and he was absolutely determined we were going to get it as a homeless project. I’m glad to say that we didn’t because the house was a wreck, there were no gardens, it was very difficult to get to. So, he wasn’t wholly unstoppable.

Throughout my time with Alabaré, I have found it such an impressive organisation. Most organisations of this kind, particularly so disparate, have disasters. Of course, there have been unhappy events, but they are managed with care and love, Christian care which I think is the heart of this very, very special organisation. I believe that I have been privileged in many ways. It is the most important organisation I have been involved with throughout my life, and that includes my 35 years in the Army and my time with the Bath and West Society. It doesn’t let you go. Once you are involved, you are caught. But it all comes down, I think, to the structure and organisation and ability and love that people give to the residents, the parents and babies, and the teenagers estranged from family. It all seems to come down to that.

Finally, a word about the Chief Executive, Andrew Lord: he has been the focus of the work done by Alabaré for those in need. His remarkable grasp of detail and his care for staff and clients have been a major contribution to the success of this remarkable charity.

I will finish by saying that I have got much more from being part of this structure than they have ever got from me, and I am really proud to be involved.

Thank you Simon, your words are very touching and naturally we are enormously grateful for all your support over the years.