From taking heroin in the school toilets at 12 to charity ambassador - how an Armley lad got off the "nightmare carousel" of prison and drugs
It was in the school toilets at the age of 12 that Chris Sylvester first took heroin.
By the age of 13 he was a registered heroin addict and didn’t finish school, admitting “the only education I had was in substances” and from then on, for the next 20 years and more until he was 34, his life was a “revolving door of prison, hospital and homelessness”.
Resigned to dying a drug addict, he is now one of 26 people that have been helped back into employment by the self-funding charity - The Howarth Foundation.
Initially he took the drug to avoid going to a lesson. He was struggling with school and despite the cocky bravado he was anxious and not very confident.
He says: “I got into the wrong crowd. When I first started taking drugs it gave me everything that I was lacking. It gave me a purpose, a circle of friends and an identity. I honestly felt I had found the solution to all my problems.”
By then he had become consumed by addiction and was powerless to stop it. He became a career criminal dabbling in everything from petty theft to stealing cars, shoplifting and drug dealing.
His mother bore the brunt over two decades and he kicked her front door down three times at his worst.
The turning point came almost by accident. He became involved with the Growing Rooms 12 step drug and alcohol recovery programme through St George’s Crypt but even then was convinced he would blag his way through it and carry on using drugs.
My Sylvester said: “I went because it was anonymous and I could fool people into thinking I was trying to solve my problems. I would pick up some jargon and be able to carry on using. At that point I was injecting into my groin and my leg was huge, it was painful but I still couldn’t stop.”
However, what followed is the last thing anyone, not least Mr Sylvester, would have expected and it gave him a lifeline.
Now aged 39, he has been clean for four years and has been “constantly working” on himself since then.
He is employed as Client Coordinator by The Howarth Foundation, which supports homeless or people at risk of homelessness back into employment and training and has been particularly keen to support the Hidden Owls charity shop venture in his “stomping ground” of Armley - where he still lives.
One of his children, 13-year-old daughter Maddie now lives with him in his own place and he is in a loving relationship with a new partner - and reconciled with his mother who he says is the lady he owes the biggest amount.
He added: “This programme means so much to me. I started using when I was 12 and I have committed lots of crime in Armley. I have done untold damage and understand how my actions have impacted many people in this community.
“It is really important to give something back and make amends for the past. I was resigned to the fact that I would die a drug addict.
“Recovery has given me a way to turn these negative experiences into positives, my life has not been a waste and can share it with others going through the same pain I was.”
One of the people he is sharing those experiences with is Carl Hedley, aged 42, whose gambling and cocaine addiction, and subsequent financial troubles, had got to the point where he woke up one day and decided that was going to be the day he would kill himself as he saw no better option.
He was unwittingly stopped by his brother who on that same morning called to say he had secured the former hotel worker a place at a day care rehabilitation centre.
Broken and with nothing left to lose he walked to the appointment in the pouring rain and from that point started what he says has been a recovery of “hard hurdles, hard days, hard times”.
At the height of his cocaine binges, Mr Hedley would spend £400 a day on the drug, but now is volunteering at the Hidden Owls charity shop with a view to becoming a paid employee and credits this project for giving him purpose and being the thing he gets out of bed for.
Mr Hedley, who is also from Armley, can now pinpoint his issues starting when his mother died when he was aged 19. He sought comfort in food, became overweight and within this time started gambling.
He gambled until he lost his house and his wife left him. A contact offered him a “lifeline” to work for him. The work was dealing drugs but he was making a lot of money and started addressing his weight issues by obsessively training in the gym twice a day, seven days a week.
By this time he was 30 years-old and that is when he took a drug for the very first time.
He said: “People said party with us, I said yes, took cocaine and enjoyed it. I drank here and there but never to excess and I could go to a pub, have a pint, go home and not think about it but taking drugs - it became drugs and drink and if I could not get one, it would be the other.
“At first I had the money to do it and would be just at weekends, then Monday crept in, then it was every single day.”
And then the money ran out. Mr Hedley started stealing from employers, his girlfriend of four and a half years split up with him and he became homeless.
He said: “I had gone from a nice house, the cars, money in the bank and flash holidays to street homeless. Most of my family didn’t want to know me because I had ripped them off, every job I walked into I was thinking ‘how can I rip these off’.
“I was staying on a nephew’s friend’s sofa. It was bad enough stealing to get drugs but there was one day I was totally broken and could not even steal. I planned to kill myself that day. Nothing mattered, I have kids and a grandson but I was gone and there was nothing more.
“But my brother said you have an interview with day care and that was the same day.”
Mr Hedley lived there with three other men, abstaining from drink and drugs and being tested every day. He left in December 2020 and moved into his own council accommodation - but was struggling until he was referred to the Howarth Foundation’s Street2Feet programme by Mr Sylvester.
He asked Mr Hedley if he wanted to volunteer with helping to get the Hidden Owls shop ready for business and has been in almost every day stripping the unit down, re-painting it and fitting it out.
If it wasn’t for this, Mr Hedley says he would have probably relapsed.
He said: “I was struggling being away from day care and being by myself. This was something to get up for in the morning. If I hadn’t I would have been laid in bed doing the wrong things and taking drugs and drinking. Hidden Owls has really given me a purpose to get stuck into. Even at Christmas I could not think forward, I thought I had done everything for nothing.
“There has been a lot of stuff I have done wrong and If I could turn the time back I would. I can’t, and have to think of other things to make amends.”
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