We talk to Alex, our Head of Information, Advice and Guidance, to find out more about his story and why he’s taking on this year’s London Marathon.
Hi Alex, how did you first get involved with Nova?
Like many of the team here, I took the well-trodden path of first volunteering, in my case helping with English classes, and then staying on! That was eleven years ago, and for the last ten years I’ve been in advice and guidance.
Tell us a bit about what you do.
It’s grassroots support, helping people to improve their living situation, their employment status or their access to support. We’ve evolved from previously being a straightforward one-stop shop for preemployment support, to now providing more wraparound care — tackling increasing barriers holding people back from achieving aspirational goals and moving forward with their lives.
What are those new barriers?
We’re now seeing more people who are working but struggling. People who are accessing all of the income available to them, whether from work or benefits or sometimes a bit of both, but still really not thriving and barely coping. That’s very difficult for me to deal with because one of the main things that drew me to Nova was the impact of making lasting change — and what is happening now is that people previously supported by us who achieved that lasting change, are being forced to come back because something else in the system has shifted, such as the economy, and knocked them off course.
People talk about the cost of living — but if we boil that down, we’re having landlords dramatically increasing their rents because they’re trying to recoup money after Covid and from rising mortgage costs. This leads to growing numbers in unsecure temporary accommodation or going through the process of being served eviction notices and facing homelessness. If they’re trying to hold down a job or have low-level English, the processes involved in that are very difficult for them to navigate independently.
We see clients grappling with the effects of soaring inflation as more become reliant on food banks and really struggling to prioritise their bills. They know that they’re going to get into debt in some way, and will get those nasty red letters, but they’re having to prioritise what they can pay in some way to get the least damaging debt.
There’s also a higher level of underlying stress present in most households we work with, which feeds into another thing: the mental health legacy from Covid. More clients are telling us that they are struggling with their mental health, high levels of anxiety or deep depression. So we try to join people up with services that can help.
It sounds very intense, how do you keep motivated with all these growing challenges?
For me, motivation has never been an issue. You cannot help but be motivated when you’re working face-to-face with the person you’re supporting. Nova prides itself on holistic support, where we connect with people on an individual basis, that’s our key driver. Numbers and statistics are secondary — it’s about that person and their individual story, knowing where they’re coming from and how we can help them.
People will often access Nova with very clear objectives or maybe they’re in a point of distress — and then through involvement with us find it quite transformative. I’m profoundly moved sometimes seeing a person’s situation improve, with them getting to a point where they don’t need Nova anymore — or they come back and say, thank you, or get involved with one of our other services.
Whenever they do come back, they’re always interested in you. Although what they’re going through may be quite personal or sometimes quite troubling, they’ll generally have time to ask me about my family — and that may be the difference between us and some of the services out there. It makes my day when a client comes back a couple of years later and they ask me how my girls are doing — or something like that. It’s all very human.
Give us Nova, from your perspective, in three concepts:
Key for me, Nova is very much people-centred. Lizzie, our director, will often have conversations with those of us working at the grassroots level about what we are facing at the moment, what the trends are out there, where we can focus our resources most effectively.
We’re very responsive; over the eleven years I’ve been here, our service has had to adapt massively due to major factors that have affected the country as a whole or the local community. Besides IAG, we can also see that through the growth of the Family Programme and other services we offer. As a small team we’ve, arguably, been better placed to adapt and implement changes to our provision, to support people who are going through difficult times — but it does mean that we can get spread rather thin!
Nova is open doors — we get lots of word-of-mouth referrals: I’ve had a good experience with Nova — they’ve helped me — go see them! I know we live in an age of reviews but it’s extra special receiving validation from people we’ve worked with.
Let’s talk a bit about the big event — is there such a thing as “Alex’s marathon training routine”?
I have members of the team drop sweets on my desk — so it’s heavily sweet fuelled. I’m eating a lot of food — anything that’s left around at work or at home, I will eat it. I try not to eat from my kids’ plates but if they leave it — I’ll eat it! There is exercise involved, too. I do twelve miles twice a week — running home from work from the Grove and getting onto the Thames, seeing the sights of London, which is lovely. I run twenty miles on Saturday mornings, and then hobble around for the rest of the week, basically.
I love running — it’s a good way of compartmentalising my day at Nova and dealing with any stress that may have built up. I don’t like running marathons, it’s a horrible distance. I view mile 20 as being the halfway point of the marathon. Mile 20 is where I stop enjoying myself and those last six-plus miles are pure agony. But if I was going to run for a charity, it would have to be for Nova.
This isn’t your first time training for a marathon — how does 2023 feel compared to last time?
It’s harder: with the increased amount of work going on at Nova; harder in terms of childcare with the girls being bigger, trying to find time before they wake up to be out and back. So, there’s a lot more coffee being consumed. I’m also getting older. I’m heavier than before because I’ve been doing more climbing training. I’m trying to lose a bit of weight to take the strain off the knees a bit. I have a lot of calf pain and I’ve always had knee pain — but it’s a good excuse to buy new running shoes.
I’m guessing in 40 years’ time you may have hung up your running shoes…but where would you hope Nova to be then?
I’d like us to continue being deeply embedded in the local community, and the word-of-mouth experience to live on: people hearing about us, getting involved and it having a transformative effect on them. Whenever someone walks through our door, that’s often quite a big step. They’ve maybe gone through a lot of statutory organisations, and I love the fact that they might come through the door feeling a bit nervous or scared and those perceptions are shattered when they’re warmly welcomed and supported as we help them on their way. I’d love Nova to be continuing to do that!