Backbone Academy: where results speak louder than diplomas

“Hey brother and sister, my first awareness session was incredible. Thank you for the compliments, but you shouldn’t downplay all you’ve done yourselves. You guys are always there for me. We’d walk through fire for each other. Through hell and high water. There are no words for what you’ve given me. I am grateful. You’re the ones who helped me realise who I am and what I’m able capable of. We’ll be on the road together for many years to come.”

Photography: Eddie Mol-
Text: Paul van Vugt

With Deborah Restiau Lit seated next to him, Marc Min turns off the voice message. “That’s our diploma. Our CV. It’s the results that make a difference to us as Backbone Academy. We help others see that they can make a difference.”

The voice message came from an old client of Backbone Academy. At one time, he had been a flight risk. No education, but a criminal record. Deborah: “Our team helped pull him out of a life of crime. Now he’s a valuable member of the team. The first time he did a session at a school, the entire class was hanging on his every word. He was going at full force. He went from negative to positive.”

Marc: “He’s now become the person that he himself had once needed. Just like me.”

Marc had decided not to tell his personal story during this interview. His story now was what counted. The results that he, Deborah and the rest of the team fight for every day. With their work on every street corner, individual counselling to get young people out of a life of crime, awareness sessions for students and master classes for professionals. The team is on standby 24/7. Because there are no office hours out on the street.

Despite Marc’s original intentions, his story just naturally rolled off his tongue. There was no stopping it. The soul of the Backbone Academy lay tucked away in his younger years. The short version? There’s no such thing. But Marc would do his best.

He was tough, but insecure. Violent and absolutely miserable. If people came too close, he struck.

Marc’s backbone

Marc grew up in Helmond. After a carefree childhood, he hit a rough patch during his adolescent years. He was in the hallway more often than in the classroom. He was tough, but insecure. Violent and absolutely miserable. If people came too close, he struck. Not even the headmaster was spared. It wasn’t working out at school. Nor at home.

On the street, they recognised Marc’s talent. He began swinging the bat at other gangs on behalf of his neighbourhood. He was like the Marlboro man. Fag in his mouth, sitting high on his horse. Marc was wearing a mask. And armour of steel. 

To avoid compulsory education, Marc opted for a career at sea. He chose to escape school life through a demanding course with Outward Bound. Back in Helmond, he found a warm welcome in a friendly, Moluccan family. And his first shot of heroin, which felt like being wrapped in a warm blanket. He had never experienced that kind of blissful feeling before. In no time, Marc was hooked. He stole from his mother and surrounded himself with junkies. His world was soon filled with enemies.

In one lucid moment, he decided to go out to sea again. To get away from heroin, away from the trouble. When he returned home, Marc fell back into his old patterns. It was getting dark. Marc didn’t want to feel anything and started using more and more. It numbed the pain but pushed him further into the abyss. He drifted into a methadone programme. Armed with a knife to protect himself from old acquaintances. With blood on his hands, he went on the run. Deeply exhausted, Marc only wanted one thing: to rest. To stop running. He turned himself in, was given probation and reported to the clinic.

That’s where he gradually started taking off his mask. He looked his deeply ingrained problems in the eye. The rehab started. He connected with his peers. He noticed that attention from others gave him a sense of warmth. A real passion that finally started to dispel the dark clouds.

He opened the doors to society himself. Towards a role with meaning. His outreach work allows him to connect with youths in trouble. He builds relationships based on trust. Achieving results. Just by being Marc. Using his hard-learned lessons from the streets. And knowing that you can’t force trust, you have to build it. Marc became the person he himself had needed all those years ago.

The only way to do it is hands-on

After 27 years of experience in outreach, Marc started the Backbone Academy. Now, three years down the line, it’s on solid ground. Marc’s team has grown to eight strong. With outreach as its core business. Social work with a practical approach. Roll up your sleeves and give individualised care. Not from an office, but on the street. In the car and at McDonald’s, face to face with young dealers and street criminals. Or with parents whose child has just hung himself… In short: hands-on.

“That’s the only way to do this work successfully,” Deborah points out. “But it’s a difficult approach that is by no means for everyone. Major social work services operate from conference tables pursuing their action plans. They let precious time slip away.”

“If something happens, we grab our car keys. We’re ready to go. Nothing, no plan of action. Reports don’t make connections. Protocols and rules are no testament to real life. You shouldn’t talk about clients, but with them. You have to go to the front lines. To people’s homes, even during the night if need be.”

Backbone Academy’s approach is based on a very human skill, but one in which we as a society seem to be increasingly lacking: building relationships. Creating bonds. Connecting without judgement, as a fair witness.

Everything starts with trust

“You can only mean something to someone if you have a relationship built on trust,” Marc says. “You have to look people in the eye, show them that you’ll always be there for them. Really listen. People in difficulty always scan you. And if they don’t trust you, you won’t get anywhere. I know well enough myself what a lack of trust can do to your life.”

Deborah: “We don’t care about what someone has done. It’s about how to get them out. Out of the fear, the grief and trauma. The pain is exactly where the ability lies for someone to move from the negative to the positive. You have to believe that everyone has talent and something good in them.”

“It’s not in our natures anymore to just ring a doorbell. Connecting so we can understand someone’s situation. We neglect this as a society and also when providing healthcare.”

We heal wounds, but the cause lies below the skin

“I firmly believe that our society is afraid of meaning something to people. It’s not in our natures anymore to just ring a doorbell. To ask how someone is doing. Connecting so we can understand someone’s situation. We neglect this as a society and also when it comes to healthcare. It’s why more and more people avoid seeking out help. They no longer believe in support channels. They don’t trust them. You get a plaster, but the wound doesn’t heal – because more often than not the cut lies deeper under the skin.”

“In fact, the problem is almost never with the individual, but the system they’re navigating through. For example, a family where the parents aren’t on the same page. Or just a school where someone doesn’t fit in because they’re constantly rocking back and forth in their chair instead of politely paying attention,” Marc said.

The social cost of budget cuts

“Actually, you have to start early at child health centres,” continued Deborah after a brief pause. “If things go wrong with the basic process of bonding in the early years, they are bound to go wrong later in life. Investing in kindergartens and primary schools is massively important. Kids learn a lot from each other there. They are taught frames of reference and social structures. That’s why budget cuts in education are so disastrous.”

“Bigger classes, less time in the gym and for swimming… everything is geared towards maths and linguistic development. And if you don’t fit in there, like Marc back then, you’re done for. You’re out of sync. Children are highly sensitive to that. They know full well that they are failing. That they don’t belong. That’s a social failure with major repercussions down the line.”

“The danger of being left behind lurks beneath every surface,” Marc says. “And it’s harder than ever on the outside. If I’d grown up in the times we’re in now, I wouldn’t have survived. Fists are now weapons. And crime is a thriving economy.”

Deborah: “You name it: drugs are used at every level of society. And the cruel thing is: the people operating on scooters on the supply side get labelled criminals while the weekend drug users are called party animals. Although they’re helping feed the system.”

“Even in big homes with Tesla cars parked outside, children are still recruited to sell joints. Or vapes. And that’s just a stepping stone to the big leagues.”

Society sees you as a danger to the community

“If you turn a blind eye to how society works, you’ll never find a solution. That’s why we also give a lot of seminars. To make society more aware. Everyone. Because even in big homes with Tesla cars parked outside, children are still recruited to sell joints. Or vapes. And that’s just a stepping stone to the big leagues. Once you’re in, it’s almost impossible to get out. And sooner or later, you’ll end up in jail.”

“Some pathways begin in the cell. Sometimes it’s a detainee, sometimes it’s a child suspect. These youths don’t trust anyone. It’s up to us to show them that we can help. That there is hope and perspective. Because there is. Without exception. The problem is when society doesn’t give them a second chance. They see them as a danger to society. Then their chances are slim. They have to apply for jobs from jail, but have no idea what the working world is like.”

“In fact, we’re all vulnerable. Even in the business world. A lot of employees just feel exhausted and turn to stimulants to keep pace at work. Or workers living in poverty who take on side gigs to make ends meet. Anyone can find themselves in dire straits and having to do what it takes to survive. Kids get offered jobs to deal no matter what school year they’re in. Being asked if you want to earn enough for a scooter is a trigger that could work on anyone.”

Our approach is following our hearts, not a protocol

“People and agencies sometimes ask us for help,” Marc adds. “They want a roadmap with a golden key that will solve the problem as quickly as possible. Well, there isn’t one. During our master class, we talk about the world of crime and our experiences with these youths. But our approach can’t be found on a piece of paper. It’s in our hearts. You have to be willing to fight for your goal. For those you want to help. And that means simply taking action. We won’t show you any diplomas, just our car keys. You’ve got to just start and go for it. Walk out the front door with the desire to make a connection. To build trust.”

Deborah: “Friends call me crazy when I tell them I’m in a car with criminals at 11 o’clock at night. ‘Why are you doing that? You have children and you’re in a good place in your life. Why would you choose to do this?’ The answer is simple: it’s what we have to do. This isn’t a job, it’s a battle. A battle for every child in need. For a positive life.”

Want to know more about the Backbone Academy?

Druk op enter om te zoeken of ESC om te sluiten
Press enter to search or ESC to close