Martin Whittaker talks to a former drug addict about winning a place to study social work at Ruskin College
GEORGE WEIR was just 15 when he began to descend into drug addiction. He spent the next 11 years living on the streets in the North-east, resorting to petty crime to fund his heroin habit.
Today, George, aged 31, has beaten his drug addiction and is turning his life around.
With the help of a course at Northumberland College, he has won a place at Ruskin College, Oxford, to study social work.
"I was over the moon," he says. "I'm still in shock now. My confidence has taken such a battering over the years, I was convinced I'd blown the interview."
He grew up in the former mining town of Blyth, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He says that despite doing well at school, he dropped out in his mid-teens.
"I was in the top classes for everything," he says. "But I just wasn't into it - I was a bit wild. I was taking drugs at 15. It was really curiosity, nothing else.
"But I gradually got more and more into the drug scene. It became a lifestyle, a job in itself. You have to be able to make money to be able to score."
By 17, he was hooked on heroin. He left home and lived rough, stealing and begging to pay for his addiction. He has a string of convictions for petty crime from his days on the streets.
"When I was 25, I really hit rock bottom. I weighed just eight-and-a-half stone - I looked like a bag of bones. It had a bad effect n my mental health. I was an intravenous drug-user, and most of my veins had collapsed.
"In the drug community, there's a saying that you either grow out of it, or you die. I think I was growing out of it. I just started to change direction."
He sought treatment for his addiction and began doing voluntary work. Now he has been off heroin for five years.
"I changed my life. I stopped hanging around with drug-users, even though a lot of them were friends. It was willpower just to stay away from heroin.
Last summer, he saw an advert for a BTEC professional development award in caring at Northumberland College, and applied.
"Until that point, I couldn't really see a future for myself. I couldn't see a way out. Education has allowed me to.
"Once I had started the course and realised what I was able to achieve, lots of doors started opening. The course itself has been excellent, as has the support from my tutor. I think education is the only way to build up your self esteem."
George was offered three higher education places and chose Ruskin College. In September, he begins a two-year diploma in social work and intends to make it his career.
His course tutor, Sarah Mitchell, says: "George has overcome a lot of problems to get through this course. I have watched his confidence develop during the past year and have admired his tenacity. He says that doors opened for him, but I would say he gave them a great push himself."