Portraits in words and images featuring people from Gloucester. Words by Christine Jordan, images by artist Russell Haines and managed by James Garrod.
By the time Delroy Ellis was in his teens, he had become the archetypal ‘bad boy’. But his journey from bad boy to becoming a pillar of the community in Gloucester is one of struggle, commitment and belief.
As a child, he lived with his mother who was no longer with her partner, Wesley Ellis, Delroy’s father. He struggled at school and when he was eleven years old, he was moved to a specialist behavioural school for difficult children. Whilst there, Delroy excelled at being a difficult child, eventually being permanently excluded for fighting with a teacher. Once he left school, his life did not improve. He got involved with petty crime, hung around with the wrong people, then began committing robberies to fund his increasingly dependent drug habit, which ultimately led to dealing drugs. But then a meeting with his estranged father when he was twenty-one changed his life.
In 1996 Prince Charles paid for a group of young kids to go to Jamaica on a Youth Exchange programme to learn about their culture. Delroy was one of those chosen. When his dad heard that his son was going to Jamaica he asked him to bring back some photos of his family. When he returned from Jamaica he visited his father in Bristol. They sat talking and even though Delroy didn’t respect his dad he still didn’t want to tell him he was selling drugs so he told him what he thought he wanted to hear. How he was going to college and how well he was doing. Then just before he left, his dad looked at him and asked him what he was really doing with his life. Delroy tried to convince his dad that he had been telling the truth but his father saw through his lies.
“Tell me the truth, I know you’re lying to me. Just promise me whatever you do in your life, become a leader not a follower.”
The advice from his father ‘went in one ear and out the other’ until four weeks later his father passed away from a drug related illness. When he went to see him in the Chapel of Rest, he asked his mother if he could have some time alone with him.
“As soon as I shut the door it was like these speakers came on and I could just hear my dad’s voice saying be a leader not a follower.”
And that was the day when he never looked back.
He decided to get involved with the Princes Trust and signed up for their twelve-week programme. He was told by the team leaders that he was really helpful with the kids, giving them the support they needed. They offered him an internship through the New Deal programme where he would get an extra £50 a week on top of his benefit for a year. That following year was an ‘amazing’ time for Delroy. He got to meet Prince Charles twice, went to St James Palace, was asked to be an Ambassador for the Prince’s Trust for the South West and won a National Award for Best Youth Worker. It was a rollercoaster of a year but also ‘a real honour’.
There was also a dark side to that year. Delroy was still seeing a lot his mates who were driving nice cars, wearing all the Bling. They would ask him why he was doing ‘Youth Work shit’ but Delroy never gave up, the words of his father still echoing in his mind. Today, many of his old friends who ran him down during that time are behind bars serving sentences for drug-related crime.
It was very difficult for Delroy to get off the drugs. They had been a big part of his life but he thought to himself, ‘if I can just do this’, and he did, but he did it by a natural process of clucking – a euphemism to describe going cold turkey. He now feels this made him a much stronger person. Not only did he have the physical withdrawal from drugs but his social life had revolved around long-time friends who were still doing drugs. The temptations were all around him. But he stuck at it. As time went on, he started to get a buzz, akin to a natural high, from the work he was doing and it was free! He didn’t have to pay for it unlike the drugs he had been taking.
Diagnosed at nineteen with severe dyslexia, Delroy has not let this hold him back. He became a Youth Worker, working at a Youth club called Star 66, but ten years ago the club became a victim of local authority cuts and Delroy was out of a job. Undeterred by this setback, he got in touch with a lady called Pat Dabbs who was funding his project called Increase the Peace. Pat asked him how they could get the message out to young kids about issues that were going on in the community in relation to anti-social behaviour, gang affiliation and weapon behaviour so he came up with the idea of producing an album because he believed that music has such a massive influence on young people. So they produced an inspirational album called Increase the Peace and that’s where the journey started. He never thought it would be where it is now. They produced 3,000 CDs and gave them out to young kids. Fifteen musicians from Gloucester got involved, local urban rappers but rappers who were very conscious, writing lyrics with messages such as ‘Don’t Carry Knives.
Delroy then set up the charity Increase the Peace nine years ago. He now works part time for the charity but he also has his own successful business offering mentoring to troubled young people in the city called Yes (Youth Engagement Scheme) Mentoring.
A typical day for Delroy can vary from being called to a police cell to act as an appropriate adult for a young person in trouble to appearing on the local news giving an interview on knife crime in the city. Every day is different. Some days are very stressful but he maintains that if he can take one kid off the street ‘who’s not going to be the next me’ he’s happy. There are many success stories to tell since Delroy set up the charity from messages on the charity’s Facebook page about how the charity has helped them, how if it wasn’t for Increase the Peace they would be out on the streets, getting involved in trouble and feeling angry to young women getting jobs as teachers and social workers.
Delroy says the charity is there to give young people hope.
‘Some of the young kids we work with don’t have their mum or dad on the scene. They’re in foster care, in and out of the system. We just want to give them an opportunity to know there are people out there who care, that we can try and steer them down the right path rather than going down the path of crime and drugs.
We’re not about cure we’re about prevention. If we can prevent young kids from going down that road of crime and drugs, give them somewhere safe that they can express themselves in an environment with professional people who are going to support them and give them advice.’
The charity is not funded by the local authority.
‘To deliver a good standard of support for young people and to be able to deliver good outcomes you need good staff and to get good staff they need to be paid well. We do what we can. We live hand to mouth.’
But Delroy has ambitions for his charity. Until recently, they were funded by Children In Need. Every year, an evaluation form has to be completed. One of the questions on the form was ‘Where do you see your charity in 5 years?’ His answer was “as big as Children in Need.”
‘I’ve got a vision I’ve got a plan. Why can’t Increase the Peace be one of the biggest youth organisations in the country. Children in Need fund projects they don’t actually deliver them. I want Increase the Peace to be a delivery charity.’
His plans for the future are ‘to change the world’ he says with a self-deprecating laugh.
‘I don’t want to get complacent. I want Increase the Peace to be a national charity, I don’t want it to be just about Gloucester.’
For the last three years the charity has been organising International Exchanges, taking a group of kids from Gloucester to the Csipero Festival in Hungary. The festival is designed to develop young people’s independence. Delroy wants to set up an Increase the Peace Youth Forum there so that he can attract more funding.
When I ask him what he would like written as his epitaph, he takes some time to answer and finally says:
‘If you believe it, you can achieve it.’
Delroy is a living example of this philosophy. When his dad told him to be a leader not a follower, he could have decided to make it big in the drug world, to become more heavily involved in the drug underworld, but he didn’t.
‘I knew what he meant. He meant, don’t do what all the rest of your family are doing, what you see on the streets of Gloucester.
I loved my dad, I do miss him dearly. I’d like to think what kind of relationship we might have now. I know he watches over me. I can only thank him for making me the person I am now. Who knows maybe in a few years he might have woken up and smelled the roses. I don’t know. I’ve always had an addictive personality. I could be in prison or in a mortuary, who knows. What my dad has given me is a natural buzz. I’m very fortunate I still get that now fifteen years on.
I thought my dad was a bit of a nobody in Bristol but when we buried him I thought ‘Is he a part of some kind of undercover mafia because all these Rastafarians turned up at his funeral in BMWs, Lexus, Mercedes cars, wearing long trench coats with the tassels, like serious guys. Whoa! People were tipping Jamaican Rum over his coffin as it drove through the streets of St Pauls. My dad had a lot of respect but for who he was, not what he had. Bless him, he had a car seat as his settee in his flat when I went to visit him.
I want that to be a part of my legacy. I want people to remember me for helping young people. I want people to remember me because of who I am not what I’ve got.’