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Childhood experiences led to a life of caring

Mitch Menagh tells Claire Brine how growing up in a boys’ home inspired him to work for the organisation that changed his life

 

Living at Redheugh, I felt valued

WHEN Mitch Menagh was 11 years old and living in the Redheugh Salvation Army Boys’ Home in Kilbirnie, little did he imagine that one day he would return there as a key worker and then go on to become The Savation Army’s director for homelessness services in the UK and Republic of Ireland. But that’s what happened.

Before we talk about his 40 years of working for The Salvation Army, Mitch takes me back even further, to his childhood, where he grew up in ‘a very dysfunctional family’.

‘When I was ten years old, my mum died,’ he says. ‘She was a poor soul. She had TB and cancer and died when she was just 43.

‘I had always been a mummy’s boy, so after she died, home wasn’t a very pleasant place to be. Dad was a heavy drinker and ruled with an iron fist. I was frightened of him because he was always aggressive, moody and never showed us kids any affection. He used to go out drinking and leave my brother and me at home by ourselves.’

Mitch found it tough trying to come to terms with the loss of his mother while coping with an alcoholic father. At 11 years old, he ran away from home.

‘I don’t think I quite comprehended what had happened to my mum,’ he says. ‘Although she had protected me from a lot of things, I know my dad gave her a hard time. He was always late home, always in the pub and didn’t treat her with respect.

‘I knew that I didn’t want to live with Dad any more, so a lad from school and I ran away from home. We slept rough in a coal bunker but only managed two nights before giving up and deciding to head back.

‘On the way home, I jumped on a bus, even though I had no money for a ticket. When I saw the ticket inspector climb aboard, I knew I’d better get off at the next stop – and that’s where I happened to bump into my auntie. She saw that I was in a bit of a state and gave me the bus fare to visit my sister. My sister was married and they had a little girl, so I stayed with them for a few weeks.

‘From there, I went by myself to see a social worker. I told them that being at home with my dad had been horrible after my mum had died, and so I wanted to go into care.’

In the conversations that followed, the name Redheugh Salvation Army Boys’ Home came up. One of Mitch’s brothers was already living there, having been admitted under a court order. Mitch was placed in the home under a care order. He moved in when he was 11 years old.

‘At this point, I knew little about The Salvation Army and thought all the people who wore the uniforms were a bunch of weirdos,’ he explains. ‘There was a little Salvation Army hut near where I lived and I remember going there to disturb the meetings by kicking the doors and throwing stones at the windows. I also used to see the Salvation Army captain selling The War Cry outside the bingo hall, and I’d ride past him on my bike, making all kinds of rude gestures.

‘But when I moved in to the Salvation Army Boys’ Home in Kilbirnie, I loved it. I felt safe, secure and loved. I ended up living there for five and a half years. One of my other brothers also moved in after me.’

While Mitch says that Redheugh ran ‘quite a strict regime’, he is quick to point out that his time there brought him lots of positive experiences.

‘There were about 40 boys, roughly aged 12 to 18, living in a house surrounded by 22 acres of land,’ he explains. ‘Every day we followed set times for meals and other activities. We had morning prayers before we all went off to school or work. When we came home we got on with gardening or jobs in the workshop. Some of the lads did picture framing, printing or basketmaking. Friday night was our free time, so we were allowed to invite a friend up to the main lounge, and that was also the day when we received a bit of pocket money.

‘Every second weekend, the lads got home leave. I used to go and stay with my sister. But on the weekends when I stayed at Redheugh, I played rugby on the Saturday, and then on the Sunday we all went to the morning service and Sunday school at Kilbirnie Salvation Army. That’s how my journey to faith started. In the evening, we had to go to another Christian service, but this time it was just held at Redheugh. After that, we’d all go off to our bunk beds in our dormitories.’

Throughout our conversation, Mitch throws in several times that he ‘really enjoyed’ his time living at Redheugh. He liked the daily structure. But he also came to admire and respect the staff who cared for him.

‘Most of them were members of The Salvation Army and they set such a good example to me by the way they lived,’ he says. ‘They demonstrated a spirit of forgiveness. There was no need for shouting at us if we did wrong. Of course, we were reprimanded, but then everyone got over it and moved on. The staff were quick to encourage and affirm us. They treated everyone fairly. We learnt that we didn’t need to drag up the bad things we had done in our past, because Redheugh was about moving forward. Living there, I felt valued. I had a strong sense of self-worth. I felt no embarrassment at being in a Salvation Army home.’

By interacting with the staff at Redheugh and the people at the Kilbirnie Salvation Army church, Mitch developed his understanding of God.

‘Without their influence, I wouldn’t have become a Christian,’ he says. ‘I saw God at work in their lives. When they cared for the boys, I found myself wondering: “Why are you spending time with us?” It was because of their faith. I remember having conversations with them about what it meant to be a Christian. Our chats were always positive.’

At 16 years old, shortly after Mitch left Redheugh, he became a Christian during a Salvation Army service. A visiting choir sang a song that contained the lyrics: ‘His love has no limits, his grace has no measure.’ Describing God’s love, the words struck Mitch.

‘I heard the line, “He giveth and giveth and giveth again”, and I realised that God’s love was meant for me,’ he says. ‘There’s no doubt in my mind that God has been gracious and good in my life.’

After leaving Redheugh, Mitch planned to join the military. But to complete his application form, he needed his dad’s signature, and they hadn’t been in contact for years.

‘In all my time at Redheugh, I never saw my dad once,’ Mitch says. ‘I met up with him so that he could sign my military paperwork, but then I never saw him again. There was no love lost between us. He was still a drunkard. He died some years ago – my sister read it in the paper.’

Despite making plans for a military career, Mitch changed course and ended up working for The Salvation Army’s social services. He started off in a men’s hostel in Cardiff, and went on to become a key worker in several Salvation Army children’s homes – including Redheugh.

‘Caring for people gave me the opportunity to give something back to God for all his goodness to me,’ he explains. ‘My work became a way of living out my Christian experience.

‘After working at a children’s home in London, I moved to work at a boys’ home in Glasgow, then I became a key worker at Redheugh. I was assigned eight young lads to work with and it was great. Often I was put on Friday and Saturday shifts, because that’s when the kids pooled their pocket money in order to try to buy beer. I was the staff member who knew where all the hidey holes were, because I’d used them myself!’

Having grown up in the care system, Mitch was keen to draw on his own experiences to help the boys and, where possible, make improvements to how Salvation Army homes operated.

‘I could remember my own admission to Redheugh, so I knew how important it was to get alongside any new boys on their first day,’ he says. ‘I didn’t put any pressure on them. I also had the power to impose sanctions if the lads played up, such as taking away pocket money or cancelling home leave. But I hardly ever did that, because I knew how traumatic it could be for them.’

After several other jobs in The Salvation Army, in 2010 Mitch was appointed the director for its homelessness services. Part of his role includes managing the family centres and Lifehouses, which aim to help vulnerable people facing homelessness and addictions. In short, people like Mitch’s dad.

‘Over the past 40 years,’ says Mitch, ‘whenever I’ve worked in a Lifehouse, I’ve always had the thought at the back of my mind: “What would I do if my old man walked in?” I always hoped I would have had the grace to forgive him and welcome him in. It’s no use asking my staff to give Lifehouse residents a second chance if I don’t practise what I preach.

‘Although my dad caused a lot of damage in my family, I understand now that his addiction to alcohol affected his mental well-being. It consumed him. So I will never like what he did, but I have forgiven him for it.’

Despite the fact that he was never reconciled with his father, Mitch is excited to see The Salvation Army helping other families to reconnect.

‘I’ve seen people who did terrible things being completely transformed through the work of our Lifehouses and family centres,’ he says. ‘We exist to help people rebuild their lives. I’ve seen people stop drinking, taking drugs and gambling. I’ve seen separated mums and dads and children being able to live together again. It’s a joy when we can stand alongside our service users, saying, “You can make a go of this”, and then watch them do it.

‘That’s what our work is all about. It’s about offering people life in all its fullness, as Jesus promised.’

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