RBLI Aylesford: supporting veterans through employment
PUBLISHED: 10:38 15 April 2019
With Royal British Legion Industries celebrating its centenary this year, we look at how the Royal British Legion village in Aylesford supports veterans through employment
When it comes to milestones, commemorating a centenary has to be up there with the biggest – and it's often highly evocative, as we saw last year when Britain marked the end of the First World War.
This year, a Kent-based military charity which can trace its own roots to the end of 'the war to end all wars' marks its 100th anniversary. Royal British Legion Industries, based in Aylesford near Maidstone, continues to give support and opportunities to many thousands of former armed forces personnel and people with disabilities.
Born out of the service and sacrifice of the First World War, the work of RBLI has been recognised by many royal visitors, including HRH Queen Elizabeth and HRH Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, as well as senior politicians.
RBLI is currently in the middle of an ambitious fundraising campaign to secure £14m for the development of a Centenary Village to sit alongside its existing village, care homes and manufacturing facility.
The aim is to create a further assisted-living scheme, extending the care and support it has provided since 1919. It will offer further crucial housing and welfare help to ex-service personnel, giving them a place to call home.
When complete, the Centenary Village will offer 48 fully accessible apartments housing single veterans in urgent need alongside 20 new family homes in a mix of town and mews-style housing, plus a further 24 assisted-living apartments.
Phase one of the new village, consisting of 24 apartments, was completed in 2017 and opened by Kent MP and former Secretary of State for Defence, The Rt Hon Michael Fallon.
A community centre will provide veterans and their families with a range of services, welfare support and training, tackling isolation through social engagement and promoting independence.
And it has already secured major national support. Late last year RBLI received the backing of Barratt Developments plc, the country's biggest housebuilder, with a £750,000 donation.
RBLI CEO Steve Sherry said: “We like to think our founders would be proud of what our charity has become. The majority of veterans leave the Armed Forces and transition relatively easily to civilian life. However, some can face immense difficulty in adapting when facing challenges with life-changing injuries and mental health conditions.
“Our role is to help them face that change, to provide the support needed to build an independent life in the civilian world. The aim is for the Centenary Village to be a national beacon for the welfare of veterans in the heart of Kent. It is hoped local people and businesses will give their always generous support to help us make it happen.”
Building on the past
RBLI was born out of grim necessity when tens of thousands of Tommies returning home from the front lines found that an even longer battle was only just beginning. Whether suffering dreadful physical injury or mental trauma, or finding themselves among the thousands suffering from tuberculosis, veterans faced serious hardship and suffering in a country counting the financial costs of four long years of conflict.
With support and care often hard to find, the lucky ones found themselves at the Red Cross Convalescent Hospital at Preston Hall, near Maidstone, which continued the vital work it had been carrying out during the war.
With the fighting over, the future of the hospital was secured by the foresight of the trustees of Industrial Settlements Incorporated, a small charity with the objective of training tuberculous ex-servicemen.
The charity bought Preston Hall and became RBLI. In 1921, with Government approval, the principle of village settlements for veterans was agreed and Preston Hall was identified as suitable. It became a place where veterans could receive treatment and rehabilitation, and at the same time gain training and employment in small workshops.
RBLI's headquarters with its accommodation, care, training and employment remains on the 75-acre site.
Leading by example
RBLI's work has also attracted national attention, in the past from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and most recently by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP. He wanted to see the integrated model of care being given to veterans and the wider community and was joined by staunch supporter Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford.
Over the past 100 years, RBLI has developed a community built upon an ethos of integrated care, encompassing health, social care, welfare and employment, in one place, to help individuals turn their lives around more quickly.
While visiting, Matt Hancock said: “This unique community offers fantastic support for our ex-service men and women, helping them not only manage their health conditions but overcome emotional and practical barriers to independence.”
Specialist long-term support and care is provided by RBLI through Gavin Astor House, a high-dependency nursing home open to those without a military connection, as well as veterans.
Nearby Queen Elizabeth Court provides assisted living for veterans aged over 55 and their spouses. The existing RBLI village consists of 74 family homes and 30 apartments, providing accommodation for younger families who may be adjusting to civilian life or single veterans who need support. As a stepping stone back into civilian life, RBLI provides temporary emergency accommodation for veterans at Mountbatten Pavilion.
Today, RBLI provides jobs to more than 100 people, alongside housing 350 veterans and their families. The social enterprise element of RBLI's charitable objectives, providing employment to armed forces veterans and people with disabilities, led to the work undertaken by the factory being rebranded as Britain's Bravest Manufacturing Company in 2016.
BBMC creates opportunities for ex-forces personnel to use the skills they learned in service to help them maintain their independence in civilian life. Products manufactured at BBMC's Aylesford base include signs for Network Rail and Highways England, as well as pallets.
As it moves into its centenary year, RBLI has established Scotland's Bravest Manufacturing Company in Renfrewshire. Adopting the BBMC model, it will provide manufacturing training opportunities for 150 disabled or long-term unemployed over three years.SBMC's work received a huge pre-Christmas boost thanks to a grant of £120,000 from the Big Lottery Fund in December.
Last year, to help mark the end of the First World War, the BBMC team produced the evocative Silent Silhouettes for the Royal British Legion and the smaller Tommy figures for the 'There but not There' charity.
Coinciding with the national commemoration, RBLI unveiled its Wall of Honour at a ceremony attended by more than 600 people, including Tracey Crouch, MP. More than 150 families, individuals and organisations have donated to the project as a way of remembering those who lost their lives in the First World War and other military conflicts.
Visually impaired as a result of a degenerative condition, Sean was unemployed for 13 years before joining the BBMC team in 1999.
He says: “At the time, when I was unemployed, I was aimless trying to find any work basically. I had such low confidence that I was willing to take on just about any job that I could – just for the sake of getting a job. I wasn't particular which job it was, as long as I had one.
“Because I literally had a disability, that meant it was not worth employing me because employers often use health and safety as an excuse to get out of employing people with disabilities. However, at RBLI they saw me as a person and saw what I could do.” Despite being without his sight and using only a keen sense of touch, Sean now works for BBMC's customer K'NEX, making point of sale models for toy shops, high-profile department stores and various exhibitions.
Sean adds: “Since I have been here, I haven't been happier, because the support's been there from all levels – from among my colleagues, my immediate supervisory team and from those above me.
“Life has been given a purpose since I've been here.”
When undergoing advanced training in Cyprus in 2014, John Ahben, who had first joined the King's Own Royal Borders 12 years earlier, was in a horrific car accident which culminated in a severe head injury.
After being unconscious for more than two weeks, John stayed at rehabilitation centre Hedley Court before finally joining RBLI in 2016, where his passion for plants took off when he was enlisted in a horticultural apprenticeship.
“This course has given me a lifeline and an opportunity to have a second life after my injury,” says John.
“Since beginning my apprenticeship, I have acquired new skills and developed a real passion for horticulture. My studies have allowed me to develop further and I have regained my confidence.
Fijian-born John, has now moved into one of RBLI's 24 new apartments overlooking the gold-medal winning Chelsea Garden he works on.
“It feels great knowing that I am working on such an important project. And on a personal level, I get to look out of my window every morning and feel a sense of real achievement.”
John was awarded Learner of the Year at the 2018 RBLI staff awards for his hard work in overcoming the challenges due to his injuries.