A TEENAGER from Stratton who fell in with the wrong crowd and began skipping school, taking drugs and attacking others has turned her life around with the help of a new mentoring program set up by her dad.
Jess Bryden struggled with bullying when she was younger but as she grew up and started hitting back, she caught the eye of older children who led her down a dark path.
She felt more accepted among her peers but started smoking cigarettes, which quickly escalated to cannabis, pills, and cocaine. She soon spiralled into the throes of addiction, depression and antisocial behaviour.
Calls to and from the police, heated rows with her parents and Jess being arrested for fighting became common. At her lowest moment, on June 29 last year, Jess was sectioned for her own safety after she ran away from home, tried to take her own life and ran out of the hospital to stay with a friend.
Her parents moved out of the country with her for a while to escape it all and get her off drugs. When they came back to Swindon, her dad Don asked Scrappers Gym boxing coaches Kelly Morgan and Paul Rogers to help her put her energy into something more productive.
One year on, the 15-year-old feels like a new person, trains daily and has set her sights on representing the UK in the 2028 Olympics. And after almost getting kicked out of Kingsdown School, she’s now a prefect, helping other bullying victims, and never misses a day of classes.
Jess told the Adver: “It’s like a new life. I’ve realised what life is really all about – school, sport and family. I’m fitter, healthier and happier. This has brought out the real me and my style – I couldn’t be dancing in ballet but I want to box for England.
“I was a dope smoker and now I’m a boxer. It’s been tough. I’ve fallen down, picked myself up, shouted and cried, but when you finish a hard training session and know you’ve given it your all, the feeling you get is so worth it.
“Back then, I would never have said I needed help because I didn’t think I did, it’s not what you do. To those who are in my old situation, I’d just say to be aware of your surroundings, who you’re surrounding yourself with and what you’ve got – and grow up. You have to want to change, there’s only so much other people can do for you.
“There are videos of me being beaten up by a group of people but there are also videos where I’m the one beating them up.
“I would like to apologise to the people that I have hurt. When you’re in that situation, it just seems normal but looking back, I didn’t know what I was doing and it’s not who I am. I’m glad I got out at a young age because, though it was bad, it could have been a lot worse if I’d stayed like that.”
Don Bryden set up BEST: Be A Better You with the aim of supporting other young people who are in similar situations to the one he helped his daughter escape. Together with mentorship scheme manager Paul Rogers and operations manager Craig Hiscock, he hopes to take on troubled youngsters and encourage them to try their hand at a new skill for 16 weeks.
This could be boxing, mixed martial arts, weightlifting, personal training – or something less physical like dance or running a beautician’s.
He hopes Jess’ story inspires others to change their lives – a video on the non-profit organisation’s website detailing what she’s been through brings him to tears without fail.
Jess added: “I think this could help a lot of people who were in my situation – and there are a lot of kids involved in that stuff. If it can help me, it can help anyone. It’s helped with my mental health. I have someone to talk to, I care more about people, I don’t react as quickly as I used to and I’m where I want to be in life.
“I’ve had a lot of support from my family, who have been amazing, and my head teacher Emma Leigh-Bennett never gave up on me. Paul Rogers brought out the best part of me, something I could not find.
“He’s lifted me up. I’m so thankful he’s taken the time to help me out of genuine kindness. He’s been there and done it, now it’s my turn to pass that on.”
Don is recruiting three more trustees, looking for sponsorship and financial support, and finding somewhere he can set up a gym and youth centre that also acts as a place of safety.
Don said: “I wanted to turn something negative into something positive. My daughter went through hell and we wanted to start her on the road to recovery. When we took her out of that toxic environment, she hated me and I’d accepted that I would lose her love for the rest of my life. But all credit to her, she’s picked this up and run with it, I’m proud of her.
“What we found is that organisations are so stretched to their limits that immediate assistance is not available for every kid, so mums and dads don’t know what to do.
“My vision is to help as many vulnerable young people as possible by giving them a neutral space where they know they’re not going to get hurt, they can relax, talk to a counsellor, play music and games, or learn a trade.”
Paul said: “It’s nice to have that bond with people and have the time to build trust and give them somewhere safe to go. We want to do whatever it takes to work with schools and help these kids.
“Jess has done so well, I know she’s going to be a great boxer, and I want to help others like her.”
Paul has started mentoring their next client while Jess continues on her newfound career path and moves ever further away from her difficult former life.
A quote from Rocky comes to Jess’ mind: “It’s like they say, it’s not about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
If you want to help, call Don on 07816 238194 or Craig Hiscock on 01793 200124. Visit bestrust.co.uk