Jennie Brent knows what it’s like to hit rock bottom.
Growing up in London she admits she felt rejected by her family. As a teenager she was aimless and had little, if any, self-respect.
But at 17 she had a daughter.
‘She turned my life around and became my inspiration. Suddenly I had a reason to make something of my life. I was worth something after all,’ she says.
She became a nurse, quit the capital and moved to Portsmouth and specialised in dialysis for kidney patients at St Mary’s Hospital, Milton.
‘I did everything I could to earn extra money – working in pubs, cleaning in the dockyard, serving in a fish and chip shop. I came out of school in London with nothing and I was determined to make something of my life.’
Today Jennie is the chief executive of a Portsmouth charity which helps dozens of people, many with learning disabilities, come to terms with day-to-day living in the real world.
Her ethos for the 33-year-old Beneficial Foundation is based on her own experience of pulling herself up by her bootstraps and getting on with life.
‘You have to turn your own life around. Nobody else is going to do it for you,’ she adds.
‘But if you can give a people a helping hand, a nudge in the right direction...
‘Coming from a background of having a childhood full of rejection, I think I know what I’m talking about.’
When she arrived at the foundation seven years ago there were seven students. Today it has 79 at its base in an old warehouse in Anson Road, Fratton, almost in the shadow of Fratton Park’s, North Stand.
That building is home to... a house. Among many other things.
There’s a number 79 on the front door and inside is a bathroom, kitchen and sitting room.
‘Many of the people who come to us need to learn life skills – personal hygiene, how to cook, manage a budget, eat healthily and how to mix socially. They’re all the things you and I take for granted but for them they are skills that once-learned will improve their self-esteem.
‘I learned that if you want something in life you have to get it yourself. That sums up our ethos.
‘Many of the people here have very low self-esteem and our whole ethos is geared to making them feel valued members of society.’
Jennie’s work ethic is behind what she encourages the students, aged 16 to 60-plus, to embrace.
They can be referred to the foundation from social services, job centres, or the health service. They all need to learn how to become valued members of the community.
‘It’s all too easy to say ‘‘stick them on a course’’. What happens when they’ve finished that? They simply go on another and end up in a spiral. I tell them all that they’re only here for a fixed period, not indefinitely.’
The centre has its own IT training room and two polytunnels on what was waste land adjacent to Fratton Park. They are filled with colour, rows and rows of home-grown polyanthus ready for selling while the students aim for City & Guilds qualifications in horticulture. Then there’s the produce from their two allotments in the city.
Immediately inside the centre is an array of craft materials much of it made on the premises.
‘A whole variety of people – from companies to individuals – donate all sorts to our scrap store.
‘We have about 1,200 members, groups like nurseries, schools and guides, who come in and help themselves to materials to use for various art projects. It could be anything from bits of old fabric to make costumes for a school play, to the bits and pieces needed to make a dragon for Chinese new year.’
At the back of the store are rolls and rolls of thick gold, silver and red card, the leftovers from the makers of cigarette cartons and other packaging. The students are currently turning them into hearts for Valentine’s Day which are sold in packs in the centre’s shop.
‘Many people might have heard of us, but have little idea what we do. It’s about giving something back to the people of Portsmouth.’