Elton, 22, is from the suburbs of West London. After frequent arrests as a teenager culminated in time in a secure unit aged 16, his mother sent him out of London to live with his brother. He joined Switchback after serving a two-month sentence in Pentonville. A talented artist and aspiring designer, Elton is now at fashion college and working towards having his own clothing brand.
‘I went to a good school, and my Mum and stepdad tried to push me in the right direction, but I was a mischievous kid—I had sticky fingers—and the company I kept growing up was hardly the Brady Bunch.
As we moved through school we got sucked into the gang thing, learning it from the year above us when we hit years 9 and 10. At first, it was on impulse, shoplifting for dares. As we got older we learned how to get bigger scores, bigger pay-outs.
Crime seemed like the quickest and easiest way to get what I wanted. I had a one-track mind: I was materialistic and wanted to go out and make money to buy nice clothes and stuff. I was trying to portray an image to people, make them think I’m something that I’m not.
Then I got caught. Pentonville was the first time that I’d been in a ‘big man prison’. It was only two months but I’m not looking to go back to jail ever again. It sunk in that I need to fix up and do something with my life, instead of living off fast money and spending it as fast, being in and out of jail. If it wasn’t for Switchback I would probably be back there now, eating off a blue plate, sleeping with cockroaches.
Instead, I’ve learned to distance myself or even cut myself off completely from the people I used to spend time with. Every week now I’m making two or three new friends who are pushing me to want to do good things. No more texts from drug dealers or from people who want to go out and steal watches.
Bettering himself with his Switchback Mentor
It’s surreal because I didn’t think I had it in me. When I first came out I told my Switchback Mentor that I didn’t think I’d be able to stick it out. But as the weeks passed, and after the first couple of shifts at the café, I started to enjoy life more. I woke up and came to work knowing that I had a support network behind me, that I had a team.
That was major because I used to be so antisocial. When I first came into the Switchback office I’d feel so uncomfortable I could hardly speak when people said hello.
I’ve been a pretty dark person without much belief in myself. I’ve worried too much about other people’s opinions. Switchback changed how I think about myself. Now I shrug off what people say, I just get on with being me.
Every day I wake up happy. I get on with the day. I go to sleep feeling happy. It’s weird—sometimes I ask myself am I really Elton? Where’s he gone?
It’s all down to my Switchback Mentor, always pushing me, saying, ‘Believe in yourself—you’re good.’ Encouraging me to go on trips and outings, ringing me up to ask me how it’s gone. Sending me constant reminders to do things like hand my CV out, get to appointments… I’m so happy that I met her because I’m in so much better a place than I was. It’s just a different level of support I’ve got.
Now I’ll talk to anyone. Go to networking events. Travel all the way from West London just to say hi to the people in the café. I never thought I’d be able to maintain a job but now I’ve had one (at the Southbank Centre, for the Koestler Trust) and I’m starting my own clothing label.
I still remember how it felt to get that first job after Switchback. When I got the email back saying you’ve got the job, can you come in for training, I was ecstatic. I was just jumping up and down in the middle of the street.
I’ve learned that if you put your mind to something and stick to it you’ll get there in the end—and it’ll be much more beneficial and satisfying than taking shortcuts.
I used to think I wouldn’t make it to 20. All the friends I grew up with are either in jail or under the ground. I’m so grateful I’m not looking over my shoulder every five minutes, ducking when I hear a car screech.
Instead, I’m on an upward path. I want to drive my brand forward, to network for new opportunities, and to start to put my own thoughts onto fabric. I want to live a happy and positive life. A long life.