I meet Gareth Owens at what is becoming the headquarters of Get The Boys a Lift in Haverfordwest. It is a hive of activity with people coming and going, carrying large pieces of timber and rolls of carpet. The sound of drilling and sawing accompany our chat.
“We have created a monster.” Gareth laughs, gesturing at the work in progress all around us.
I ask him to tell me more.
“Well, this all started by accident really. I had an idea to do a sponsored hitch hike. I wanted to raise awareness around mental health, particularly for young people. I wanted to get people talking.”
Why mental health particularly?
“I had just come back from a couple of years in New Zealand and I felt isolated. I was searching for something that would help get my life in Pembrokeshire back up and running and help do something for the community.
I found myself thinking about my last years in school. A couple of young people had taken their own lives and it seemed to me that it was never talked about then. It just got brushed under the carpet.
I had grown up with a Dad who is a mental health nurse and a Mum who is a very open person, so that closed attitude to mental health really bothered me. It bothers me that people don’t feel they can talk about their stresses. I thought I might be able to do something to get people talking and maybe raise some money for charity.”
So you came up with the sponsored hitch hike?
“Yes, but I thought, everyone does sponsored stuff…you know…collects money. I had the idea of asking people to buy a T-shirt instead of just handing over cash to the charity. My brother was working for a print works, so I enlisted him, and we produced these T-shirts. We asked people to give £20 and they got their T-shirt. It really took off. People liked the idea and all the money went to Papyrus who are a suicide prevention charity.”
Why hitch hiking?
Gareth shrugs, “You don’t have to know someone to give them a lift.”
Oh, I get it…clever. How far did the first trip take you?
“I covered over 700 miles all around Wales in a big loop and when I came back people kept asking for more T-shirts”
Gareth took out a loan and more T-shirts were printed. Then a boozy evening out with the boys sparked the decision to do it again, but this time to make a competition of it. A friend built a website with payment options for people to buy/donate online and the planning for the next trip began.
We were getting interest from all around the world, 9 countries so far including Australia and New Zealand, Canada and the USA, UK, and Ireland and France and Spain. We branched out, creating hoodies and beanies as well as T shirts and we raised £12,000.”
In June 2018, 5 of the lads set off to hitch to every capital City in the UK. It was a race to cover thousands of miles and it was Greg who won.
“We realised we had started something that appealed to young people all over the world so in August 2018 we decided we needed proper premises. We had been operating out of garages and spare rooms, but when Value Independence offered us space, we jumped at the opportunity.”
The space they found was 7A Dew Street in Haverfordwest, where we sit talking… the scene of so much activity.
Gareth tells me about the plans to have a clothing shop, a coffee bar and a workspace. Hence the activity all around us. I can see that it will be an impressive space.
“We want a place for young people to come and be comfortable. They can buy clothing or have a cup of coffee, but we will also be offering a place to talk, get support and advice. We are about suicide prevention…that’s our purpose, and we plan to have counsellors and other professionals to offer support and advice.”
Are you trained to advise on issues that people might bring?
“I want to be really clear that none of us are about fixing anyone. The only person that can fix us is ourselves, but we will offering a safe place for people to raise their concerns and we will be signposting to professionals who have the skills to get people to open up and hopefully get what they need to move forward.
We can all have a bad time, a relationship breaks down, we have money worries, we lose our job, or we just get unwell. People often don’t know where to go. We want to make sure that we bridge the gap…. that we get people to the services that can best support them. We will also be creating jobs here for young people. Those are greatly needed in Pembrokeshire,”
So, who runs this then? Surely you aren’t managing all of this on your own?
Gareth shakes his head. “Definitely not just me,” he says , “ I like to think I started this off and brought different worlds together in a way that some people said couldn’t possibly work, but there are ten main people involved in making this all happen, and many more who help out in various ways.”
So, you manage the others?
Gareth is emphatic, “Definitely not. There will never be a boss. We work together. We are a bunch of mates with a shared goal.”
I have worked on a few committees. Isn’t that difficult to manage? What if you don’t agree?
“We took a long time recruiting the right mix of people. We have been going for two years but this team have only been formally meeting for 3 months. It’s the right fit. Around the table we are all open to possibilities, and there is no fake here. We are real and down to earth.”
“Not everyone understood what we were trying to achieve at the very beginning but we now have 15,000 people engaging with us on-line from all over the world and its growing. We have at least 50 people giving their time and energy free to get this building licked into shape. We have raised thousands of pounds for mainly local charities.
We didn’t do this in a conventional way. I would say we probably did it completely the wrong way around, but it has captured people’s imagination and they want to support us. Our team are all part of creating a bridge. We all understand that reaching out when life gets difficult can be hard, but if people can reach out to us, we are committed to making them welcome and doing the best we can to point them in the right direction.”
Sounds great. I’d like to know what you do when life gets stressy.
I believe it’s a thin line between good and bad mental health for everyone. I don’t believe anyone who says they are never unhappy or never stressed. It’s important to manage our disappointments. We all have them and while we are in the middle of them, we should put off making big decisions, but then it’s important to move on.”
“I have made so many mistakes, but you know, I believe mistakes are compulsory.”
“You learn so much from your mistakes. You must let yourself be human. You grieve when you mess up and then you get on with it. Don’t lose the opportunities that life is always presenting.”
Wise words. Anything else that helps when life is tough?
“I have to be busy, but I have learned that it’s really important to get good food and good sleep. I play rugby and I run and work out. Those help me with stress…oh and coffee…you can’t beat good coffee.”
I leave Gareth to his work but not before he asks me to mention the other guys beavering on in the background. A very big hello to Greg, Ryan, Tom, Noah, Gareth and Wilson.
The headquarters of Get The Boys A Lift is due for opening at around Easter time. Pembrokeshire.online is already angling for an invite to come back for that!
This story is part of the Life Seeker newspaper