Feature: Aurora Project Lambeth set to enlighten locals with mentoring program

The Aurora crew
The Aurora crew

Aurora Project Lambeth’s doors opened over two years ago now. Isabel Hope-Urwin stopped by to see how things were getting on.

In the hubbub of Stockwell Road, Aurora Project Lambeth’s headquarters are easily missed. A small plaque on the building’s whitewashed facade sheds little light on its occupants.

Despite appearances, the company’s short history is worth knowing. Aurora Project Lambeth is a peer mentor service designed to offer support to people who are in, or about to go through, treatment for drug or alcohol problems.

The borough’s booming night-time economy and widespread drug availability has heightened awareness in the past decade and demand for the service has been reinforced. This raises the question: why, since its launch in 2011, has it avoided the limelight?

It seems that public opinion on the issue has become a detrimental force. This makes Aurora Project Lambeth’s work tricky. Education often focuses on the dangers of drugs and alcohol, demonising them to reduce their usage, while media attention to the ways that dealing and use impact on crime has cultivated fear and mistrust of users.

The project’s pioneers, however, acquired expertise through personal use of London’s rehabilitation services. Their insight exposes the effects of negative press on the recovery process. Founder and director Paul Lennon explains that though he witnessed many success stories, an absence of ‘good news’ ultimately hinders patients’ recovery.

Aurora Project Lambeth was proposed to encourage external empathy. The founders joined forces and set out to deconstruct taboo. They planned to ‘challenge the stereotype that drug and alcohol users are a constant burden on society’ and ignite inclusive, realistic conversation.

Its peer mentor service builds a bridge of positive communication between the successfully recovered and those still in treatment. Volunteers who have overcome substance addiction and re-entered the local community are trained to support others just a few stages behind. They give guidance while also gaining invaluable experience.

Of course, government backing was imperative for this not-for-profit social enterprise to find its feet. Lennon reveals that for a collective of ex-service users, this phase was a daunting necessity.

Lambeth Council saw the project’s value instantly. In correspondence with its own pledge to do things ‘with’ rather than ‘to’ local people, it agreed to assess public demand by circulating a survey among the borough’s treatment population. The response was encouraging.

Aurora Project Lambeth was commissioned by the Primary Care Trust in April 2011. Community engagement and re-education dissolved prejudices against service users and reveal a synergy between the company and its constituency.

The project quickly evolved into a full-scale operation. Open doors and an accessible head office drew volunteers. The only requirement is that volunteers are ‘six months illicit drug-free, non-judgemental and caring’.

Friendliness is undoubtedly the project’s greatest allure. It has effected a parodic, cohesive community. If the world outside is the eventual objective, the Brixton bureau is its microcosm. But isolation contradicts the overall aim. Peer mentors must lead their mentees, with whom they have been meticulously paired based on age, gender and interests, into the bustling outdoors.

Communal activities or a trip to a café or cinema all ease rehabilitation by increasing public interaction. The cycle of clients’ referral, rehabilitation and social re-entry has seen many lives restored. Yet past experiences have conditioned some service users to feel wary of society and believe that it is safer to be an introvert.

The interior of Aurora Project Lambeth’s office, in contrast to the outside, is vibrant and self-confident. Positive inscriptions adorn the walls and racks of newsletters and pamphlets inspire hope and self-help. Comfy sofas, IT facilities and meeting rooms signify activity and conversation. Unknown to passing pedestrians, Aurora Project Lambeth functions as a cocoon, propelling people, once they feel ready, back into society.

With this legacy, the team can now confront the local community. Lennon has even suggested painting the office’s exterior with bright colours to attract public attention.

Their message is simple but revolutionary. In the case of substance misuse, appearances can be deceptive. By inviting people to peer beneath the surface of rehabilitation services, a hardworking, optimistic community is revealed.

For more information, visit auroraprojectlambeth.org.uk or Tweet the team @AuroraProject1.