Michael Joseph Peirce, MBE
Doctor of Laws
17 February 2010 - Orator: Professor Kim Etherington
It is my privilege today to present to you Michael Peirce MBE, Chief Executive Officer of the Southmead Project, a man who has worked hard to make his own dreams come true; and used his vision, determination, resilience and courage to help others realise their dreams and change their lives.
Southmead is a large estate of mainly social housing, situated on the northern arc of Bristol, where Mike was raised from the age of two. He told me: “my identity was shaped against a background of extreme poverty, deprivation, abuse and terror; all I knew was fear”. Throughout his childhood and adolescence Mike was exposed to every kind of violence, both inside and outside his home.
In the 1950s Southmead was a tough place: alcohol and drugs were a part of life and arguments were settled with broken bottles, hatchets, and shotguns. Mike learned that by being violent he could survive in an unsafe world. He grew up believing that crime was a necessary part of his life.
On leaving school at 14 Mike was apprenticed to a construction company. At 17 he was diagnosed with a duodenal ulcer and introduced to major painkillers. At 21 he had the first of three major operations which he now views as attempts to cut the pain out, “but”, he told me, “nothing could cut out the deeper pain of emotional distress”. His use of alcohol, tranquillisers and painkillers increased: some drugs were prescribed, others illegally acquired, but all of them were addictive and, eventually, destructive.
Mike married Carol, a Southmead girl, when he was 23 and they settled into south Bristol: two children were born within the first two years of their marriage. He says of Carol, “remarkably, she stood by me through so much and certainly saved my life”. And after 42 years, she is still by his side here today, along with their son and daughter and other family and friends. Mike tells me that it was Carol’s belief in him that still inspires him to believe in the people who come to him for help today. He will never judge or reject them.
After 14 years of drug dependency, Mike came to the end of the line at the age of 35. He described himself as “scared out of my wits, frightened to death of everything”; he felt out of control of his drug taking, his pain and his life. He was fortunate at that time to find the right person, Dr. Jeffry, a GP who had also trained as a counsellor. For an hour a week Mike talked to this man about his life, describing him as “a fantastic guy …a brilliant, lovely man”. He vowed that if he ever recovered he wanted to be like Dr. Jeffry; to have his presence, his understanding and his empathy. People who know Mike today will acknowledge that he has indeed developed those qualities.
With Dr Jeffry’s help, and Carol’s support at home, Mike was able to give up drugs and alcohol; set himself up as a self-employed builder; and begin work as a volunteer for a drugs agency.
In 1990 he completed a certificate in counselling skills; in 1993 a Diploma in Counselling; and for four years he worked as a volunteer counsellor with the NSPCC.
Mike reached a crossroads in 1994: he needed to choose, either to secure paid employment in the field of tranquilliser withdrawal, or to respond to the encouragement he was receiving from John Dunn, a Southmead man, who was urging him to start a drugs project in Southmead. Of course he chose the latter. On his return to Southmead Mike found that very little had changed. Drug misuse was rife and few families were unaffected by the fallout.
Mike tells me the Southmead Project was born in a satchel, which he carried between his home where he worked on funding applications, and a phone on the wall of a church hall where he picked up messages from people seeking help.
When I first visited the Southmead Project in 1996 it was housed in a run down building in the old Bristol City Corporation yard: other parts of that building were being used as a drug den. In the centre of this yard was a pile of corrugated iron which I later discovered was the home of a drug user who slept there with an axe at his side. The Project was frequently vandalised by drug dealers who resented its presence in the midst of their lucrative patch – but nevertheless 30-40 drug users were welcomed each week into the Project and given hot soup and information about how to give up drugs.
Mike began to speak publicly about the work of the Project, attracting donations and volunteers. A part time manager’s post was created for which he successfully competed. Lottery Funding enabled the Project to grow and develop, and methadone reduction programmes were introduced with counsellors working alongside GPs in local surgeries. At the same time the Southmead Project set up a programme for parents and family members affected by drug misuse and an outreach service.
Many of the people using the Project were telling stories of early, and sometimes lifelong, exposure to trauma and abuse – stories that were also emerging from drugs centres elsewhere. In response to those stories Mike set up Touchstone, a specialist abuse counselling service.
As a leading figure in the fight against drugs Mike was honoured in 2000 with an MBE, and in 2003 the Project received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Services. To date Mike has raised over three million pounds for charitable purposes.
As Chair of the Southmead Youth Trust, Mike recognises the needs of today’s young people who, without guidance and support and opportunities to broaden their horizons, might well become the addicts of tomorrow. He knows there is a need to address the wider social and economic factors that underpin drug misuse. As general secretary, fundraiser and founder member of the Southmead Rugby Club, Mike works with young people and their parents to build family spirit as a foundation for positive relationships. In an area where joy riding and car stealing was rife, Mike raised funds for the WHEELS project that fosters a legal interest in cars by teaching young people to strip down and rebuild engines prior to racing them. As a founder member of the Southmead Golf Society he raised funds to provide professional lessons, equipment and clothing for young people who would otherwise never have access to the game.
Recognising that many young people using drugs had not been able to make use of school education, and had never known the discipline or pleasure of work, in 2002 Mike set up Community Developments Southmead Ltd with funding from the Greater Bristol Foundation. That project provided training for people on methadone prescriptions, teaching them a range of skills, from building to office work, alongside group support for their emotional needs at this critical time in their recovery. This initiative is now rolling out in other areas across the UK.
Mike tells his personal stories as part of a training package for professionals working in health, social services, the police force, rehabilitation centres, Salvation Army hostels, and on leadership courses – in fact anywhere he thinks his story can help people intervene differently to break the relentless cycle of harm. With memories of himself as a four year old child living with domestic violence, Mike is now Chair of North Bristol and Southmead Domestic Abuse Forums, working alongside individuals from other local organisations.
The Southmead Project – a registered charity – is still at the heart of the local community. It has shifted its focus from direct work with drug misusers to working with stories of historic trauma and abuse. It was for this important aspect of the work that Mike raised money for research which I was commissioned to undertake. Working collaboratively with Mike and his colleagues has given me a chance to see first hand how he has used his personal strengths and resources to transform the adverse effects of his own trauma and drug misuse, and, in that process, encourage and inspire others to do the same.
Madam Chancellor, it is with great pleasure that I present to you Michael Joseph Peirce, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.