Danny Buckland meets former soldiers teaching resilience to children struggling to cope with the pandemic’s impact on their lives.
As young soldiers, Pa Njie and Stephan van Niekerk suffered life-changing injuries after surviving explosions of the very worst kind.
Highly trained, ambitious and with rewarding careers stretching in front of them, they were plunged into despair, facing life as double amputees and medically discharged from the Army.
But now the pair are using their experiences of coping through dark times to help schoolchildren deal with the mental health challenges from the pandemic – which experts predict could linger into adulthood.
Multiple reports have warned of the pandemic’s impact on children with a survey by the charity Young Minds revealing 67 per cent of teenagers believe the isolation, damage to friendships, loss of education and work prospects will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health.
Image:Rowan Griffiths / Daily Mirror)
A remarkable programme, which won a prestigious Soldiering On Award last month, is fighting back. Pa and Stephan are part of a 94-strong force of injured veterans trained by a scheme from Blesma, the Limbless Veterans charity, to go into schools to deliver workshops on building resilience and developing coping strategies.
The ex-servicemen and women are schooled by theatre practitioners, directors and professional storytellers to deliver a 15-minute “performance” of their journey, from incident through rehabilitation to a new life.
Pa’s voice is gentle as he calmly relates how he was blown 200ft into the air by a roadside bomb while carrying out a patrol in Afghanistan in 2010.
The 31-year-old, who joined the Cheshire Regiment from school, was 19 and had been part of a unit protecting a village school from the Taliban in Helmand Province.
“I tell them about the injury, how I was in an induced coma and flown back to the UK. I had lost both my legs at 19,” he says.
“My rehabilitation took two years and I faced a number of physical and mental challenges. I had nightmares, flashbacks, phantom limb pain and struggled with PTSD and anxiety.
“But I also tell them about never giving up. I started studying again during my rehabilitation and got my A-levels at college.”
Pa, from Birmingham, then became the first member of his family to attend university and obtained an accountancy degree from Aston University in the city.
“We’ve all had challenges through the pandemic and the younger generation is now facing a lot of issues, but my message is that as long as you are breathing, never give up. Always try to appreciate what you have and try to follow your dreams,” says Pa.
He went on to compete in the Invictus Games, work for Jaguar Land Rover and is now a programme manager for the Mission Motorsport charity.
The Making Generation R programme takes groups of Blesma veterans through a one-week training programme run by the award-winning social enterprise the Drive Project, which has been devised to mould their experiences into talks that can form the basis of workshops for pupils aged 11 to 18.
“I’d never done anything like it before,” says Pa.
“There were a lot of things inside me that I’d never shared with anyone but doing it as a group you realise that others are going through the same things. It was refreshing and therapeutic.
“We finished the training by giving our talks on the stage at a West End theatre which was an incredible experience.
"We were all nervous up there and I was a bit nervous going into my first school but it is so rewarding to see their reaction. The feedback has been brilliant.
“At one session, a disabled pupil came up to me to say that the talk had given her the confidence and courage to face up to things that were bothering her.
"She realised she wasn’t alone and there was hope.
“A lot of them look at me and say if he can come through that then we can deal with what issues are in front of us.”
The prospect of revisiting the moment when he stepped on an IED while serving in Afghanistan with 3rd Battalion The Rifles in 2009 was daunting for former Lance Corporal Stephan. He lost both legs and also fingers in the explosion.
“I was worried about the impact on my mental health. I’d told the story a couple of times and it affected me badly so to contemplate doing it several times in front of schoolchildren was a tough ask,” says Stephan, 37, from Taunton, Somerset.
“Squaddies don’t normally share emotions and feelings or express themselves and I was way out of my comfort zone on the course.
“But Blesma projects are always well thought out and it was taken at a steady pace with our wellbeing central. At the end of the week I was buzzing.
“I am a positive guy anyway but I was really energised by this.
“Going into school for the first time was nerve-racking but once I got into my story I was fine. It’s a talk about how I became a bilateral amputee after being blown up and almost dying.
“It is about how I survived then learnt to stand on makeshift prosthetic legs and support my body weight using a metal frame.
“I was worried about what they might think but I finish on a high about what I have achieved and they are inspired. You can sense the resilience building in them through the workshops.
“It helps them think that they can get through their problems.
“The pandemic is this generation’s tough moment and we have to recognise that and help them come out of it stronger.
“They’ve not really built up resilience and a teacher told me recently that they had been noticing children were coming back to school and almost falling apart because they don’t know how to get back on track.”
Stephan, who is married with four children, is now a highly acclaimed motivational speaker for corporate audiences and both he and Pa are looking forward to restarting in-school sessions this month after holding virtual workshops during the pandemic.
The MGR programme, which is delivered by the Drive Project, has reached 125,000 students and frontline workers since its launch in 2016.
Blesma chief executive Jon Bryant says: “The commitment of our members to help others is uplifting.
"They have faced the toughest of challenges and made huge sacrifices in service yet they still want to give back to society.
“The programme gives them incredible training and because they are learning together they can support each other as they build up their confidence.
“It is clear they have an inspirational impact and are helping the nation’s teenagers as they experience a major upheaval in their lives.”
Teacher Ash Lucas has seen the talks have a positive impact on students at two pupil referral units in Grimsby, North East Lincs.
“It inspires them and we can continually refer back to the sessions,” he says. “The speakers demonstrate that things can go wrong; you can lose limbs, become blind and have debilitating injuries but there is always another way.
“Children are missing a bit of resilience and confidence in their own abilities at the moment so to listen to an amputee who still has drive and does stuff really inspires them.”
Ash, who was in the Royal Engineers for 10 years serving in Afghanistan and Iraq before becoming a teacher, says: “The pandemic has effectively run their social batteries down.
"Their ability to be in groups and form friendships has been diminished by the isolation so it is valuable to show that these issues can be faced and, with determination and help, they can progress.”