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Lifelong skills from the minister

Church counsellor gives traumatised students the power to take control of their own lives. Andrew Mourant reports

Many students come to Gordano Training in Bristol burdened with traumatic emotional baggage. Some are sullen and withdrawn; others angry and abusive.

When your head's not right, it's hard to concentrate.

Gordano has made progress towards sorting out these students' problems by appointing a resident therapist. The growing demand for Pamela Woodford's services means she now works there five days a week.

A lay minister attached to an Anglican church in Bath, Pamela regards the work at Gordano as her "true ministry". She has dealt successfully with all sorts of problems - drugs, demoralised girls on the verge of prostitution, anger - since she started work in October 2001.

She specialises in "human givens" counselling which works on the principle that everyone has a basic need for attention, love, security, connection and control. It also taps into memory, imagination, the capacity for problem-solving and self-awareness. Therapists focus on helping people identify their unmet emotional needs, and then meeting these by using their own resources in new ways.

Gordano trainees are counselled a stone's throw away from the bustle of their daily routine. Using meditative background music, Pamela creates an air of calm in the basement room of an imposing Georgian terrace building, now used as a conference centre, in Portland Square, St Paul's.

Her link with Gordano began following a chance encounter. "Someone who worked with the Connexions service went to a human givens seminar and I was asked to see a member of that person's family who needed help," she said.

There followed an invitation to Gordano.

"I now see 12 to 15 people a week; though with some, it may only be once," she said. "It depends on their level of trauma."

Few presented a greater challenge than Belinda, whom Pamela first encountered writhing on the floor in the throes of a panic attack. There followed more than a year's therapy. Belinda had been raped as a child and then had to contend with an alcoholic, sometimes suicidal mother.

Considering the classes she missed, it seems miraculous that she obtained 10 GCSEs, all grade A-C. Eventually, Belinda had had enough and moved in with her stepfather.

Now 17, having embarked on a national vocational qualification in business administration, she is considering job offers.

Belinda believes she owes everything to her sessions with Pamela, particularly coming to terms with the post-traumatic stress disorder associated with childhood rape. The technique Pamela used is called visual kinaesthetic desensitisation (VKD).

This has enabled Belinda to move on by learning to regard her tormentor as someone quite different - the memory remains but not the trauma. "I now see him as Donald Duck wearing a pink polka dot dress," said Belinda.

Alastair provided a different challenge. He was one of Gordano's angry young men. Pamela soon discovered that his difficulties stemmed from special needs that were never properly addressed at school - Alastair had always struggled to read and write. He had also been bullied.

Alastair rowed constantly with his parents. "Then I'd come in here and start shouting - I would want to explode," he said.

With Pamela's help, Alastair, 19, grew to understand that he had an emotional and a rational side. "I now know the source of my problem," he said.

He is now getting on well with his NVQ 2 in painting and decorating, and has ambitions to set up his own business.

Christine Bates, operations director at Gordano, said: "Taking Pamela on makes a difference to the 45 per cent who weren't making progress here. It is expensive - pound;150-pound;170 a morning - but we regard her as crucial. She has transformed a lot of young people with deep-seated problems.

"Give youngsters the emotional skills to tackle what life throws at them, then they can learn anything else quickly."

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