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Emmaus Norwich is a life saver for Jonny

A former heroin and crack addict has been describing how charity Emmaus Norwich helped him "clean up his act" ...

A year ago, Jonny Sage was addicted to heroin and crack cocaine. In his own words, his life had sunk into a spiral of “debauchery and horribleness” until he came into contact with Emmaus, reports Network Norwich ...

Jonny’s relationship had broken down, he was sofa-surfing and getting a night’s sleep where he could but also spending more time than he wanted living rough on the streets.  

However, desperate to “clean-up his act” and get off the drugs, he discovered Emmaus and applied for a place at the charity’s base in South Norfolk.  

Those joining the community, at the former All Hallows Convent at Ditchingham near Bungay, are known as companions and work to recycle furniture, household goods and other items, re-selling them to raise funds for the charity’s work.  

With its origins in France, having been founded by Catholic priest Abbe Pierre, there are now 26 communities in the UK with Terry Waite as patron.  

Jonny, 36, who in the past had worked as a carpenter, was accepted as a companion and given support to rebuild his life.  

Emmaus Norwich, which currently hosts 12 companions from across Norfolk and has aims to accommodate 27 by next July, was launched in 2011 when the sisters at All Hallows Convent gifted the premises to charity on a peppercorn lease.  

In the last four years it has grown, using the premises to display recycled and revived goods and furniture for sale and providing accommodation for companions.  

Buildings were repainted, donations made from benefactors across the Waveney Valley and government funding secured to further develop its work. 

General Manager Cathy Hembry said: “The idea is that companions join the community and work, offer their skills and begin to rebuild their lives with the aim of eventually re-entering mainstream community or creating a home for life.  

“Companions can self-refer or be referred from hospital, hostels, prison or councils. They need to be homeless or at risk of homelessness and willing to participate in 40 hours of work each week in our social enterprise. 

“The idea is that ‘you can help others and in doing so you can gain something for yourself’. That bedrock still underpins Emmaus throughout the world.”  

There is no alcohol or drug use permitted on-site and in return for work, companions are provided with a single room, shared bathroom facilities and sign off their benefits, receiving an allowance of £35 a week.  

All meals, laundry, clothing, TV, telephone and internet are provided with additional support offered for those who have been drug or alcohol dependent or had issues with their physical and mental health and relationships.  

With three members of staff, supported by a team of volunteers, the charity takes in furniture, electricals, household items, books, clothing and homeware and revives them – ensuring they are not despatched to landfill – and sells them from the convent buildings.  

Companions sort, mend and sell the products, either from the Ditchingham site or the charity’s shop in Bungay.  

“Our buildings are a maze of small showrooms, all laid out with furnishings, beds, electrical items, bric-a-brac and antiques for sale, all individually priced. Customers come in, have a look around and often buy. We aim to process items for re-use rather than see them dumped,” said Cathy, “and have about 30 customers come in every day.  

“We have also opened the Old Orchard Café and are looking to create a broader visitor experience where people can come along and look around and shop and spend up to half a day with us.”  

The premises also include a reception, office space, sorting rooms for clothing to be cleaned and sold. Emmaus collects furniture within a 20-mile radius, though donors often take items to the Ditchingham community.  

There are plans for more showrooms and to expand by creating a commercial and training kitchen to serve a bistro restaurant within two years, while upstairs at Abbe Pierre House there are the former cells of the sisters, which will be converted into rooms for more companions in the future. 

There are many reasons why people arrive at Emmaus after their lives took a downward turn. Some find themselves homeless and sleeping rough on the streets of Norwich, others have drink or drug addiction, or may simply have lost their way in life.  

After a marriage breakdown, one individual reflected how he was living in a Norwich park and drinking a bottle of vodka every day – an existence in stark contrast to the affluent lifestyle he once led only a few years earlier with a home, good wage, family and foreign holidays.  

Another companion found himself homeless after the elderly relative he cared for died. He too ended up drinking heavily and sleeping in shop doorways but was referred to Emmaus by his support worker and found stability in the community and a new focus to his life.  

The broader aim is to help companions rebuild their lives, learn or regain skills, and re-enter the mainstream community.  

Companions are being trained in an array of skills; as counsellors, or in cycle maintenance, PAT testing and driving.  

Jonny, for example, is on a drug recovery programme with the Norwich Recovery Partnership and is receiving support to combat his addiction.  

“Being at Emmaus saved my life,” he said. “It has put me in a frame of mind to get up in the morning and do some work and has taken me away from the life I had of debauchery and horribleness.

“It is great being able to work around others, to talk to people and make eye contact with them, my confidence has grown so much.  

“If it was not for Emmaus there was a road I was going down with substance misuse where there was only one outcome, and that would be that the drugs would kill me or that my thoughts would lead to me killing myself. I was definitely having suicidal thoughts, but Emmaus has taken me away from all that. I now have a purpose to get out of bed for.”  

Several months on from his lowest point he drives the charity’s van doing deliveries and furniture pick-ups, works in reception, answering telephone calls and booking in deliveries and also in the charity’s showrooms.  

Being a companion has allowed Jonny access to funding to retrain and prove his life and the path he has chosen is to do an addiction counselling course online. Once he has the certificate in that he hopes to progress to a Foundation Course and do some pastoral care in schools. He sees that coming to fruition over the next two years.  

“Where I was before was a very dark place and I am extremely grateful for Emmaus for what they have done, I am grateful on a daily basis,” added Jonny. “But for me it is now very rewarding to be helping others.”  

Companions stay with the community for varying lengths of time depending on their outlook and progress.  

“About a third stay for less than three months after finding it is not for them; another third stay for 1-2 years; and the remainder stay for longer than that,” explained Cathy.  

“If people have a 40-year drinking history and have been sleeping on the streets they may need to spend more time within the community than if they are only 22 and looking to get back into the wider world as soon as they can.”  

It does not, however, always have a happy ending. Some companions leave before they are ready and head off to make their own way in life again.  

“Emmaus Norwich is a place for people to come and recover, a place where they feel safe. They often arrive unwell and in many ways broken but over a period of weeks we already start to see a difference; their shoulders go back, their hair gets trimmed their bellies are full and they begin to look and feel better and they start to use their skills.  

“Emmaus is about everybody working together to end homelessness.”  

For more details, to donate or buy items, or volunteer, call 01986 895444 or visit  

PHOTO: Pictured above are some of the Companions and staff at Emmaus Norwich, including Jonny Sage, back row, fifth from left.

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