My upbringing was vibrant and illuminating. I was born in the 80’s, a child of bluegrass musicians and third generation Southern Irish and Russian Jewish immigrants.
Our family thrived on live music, weekend gigs and music festivals in school holidays. I formed a deep connection to music and I became intrigued to understand the history, culture and heritage behind the songs. The world music stage was my favourite: Reggae, Gospel, Zydeco, Gypsy Jazz, Blues, Front Porch Swing – I loved it all – and it lifted my soul like nothing else!
I have vivid childhood memories of being constantly intrigued by and embracing cultural diversity. The first book I ever bought with my own pocket money, ‘Black and British,’ was about the transatlantic slave trade. It fuelled my curiosity; I couldn’t comprehend how people could treat others this way. I waited eagerly for the day we’d be taught the subject at school. I wanted to share what I’d learnt and how upset I felt, but the day never came. We ‘touched’ on the triangular route but not the harrowing conditions of exploitation and abuse, the acute labour shortage in the UK post 1945, or about the arrival of Windrush or the ‘Keep Britain White’ movement. The history that I learnt at aged 8 struck a chord that stayed with me for life.
My high school was predominantly White-British, and I recall being deeply curious about pupils from non-English backgrounds. What was their ancestry, their faith background, how did they engage with the world around them? The first time I heard the term “refugee,” when a Yugoslavian boy joined my class, I instantly wanted to help.
At 14 years old, I met Jane, a mother who moved in nearby, a professor of African Theatre at The University of Leeds, and she became my mentor. I sincerely admired Jane and I'm extremely grateful for her support and advice over the years. When looking after her son from time to time, I was fascinated with her book and souvenir collections from African places she’d lived and worked. I dreamed about one day visiting the vast and wonderful continent.
After my GCSEs, I could study the subjects I was most interested in: Law, Psychology, and Sociology, taught in a multi-cultural environment, where faith, culture, or skin colour were not obstacles to people fitting in. For my psychology project, I chose to focus on racial stereotyping and profiling; in Law I excelled in all aspects of immigration and human rights. In sociology I conducted a field study on Rastafarian youth identity.
One of my life long dreams came true during college: my first visit to Africa, the continent that had pulled on my heart strings all those years. My two brothers and I set off on a two-week Gambian adventure, graciously hosted by locals enthusiastic to help us discover their beautiful and incredible country. I wasn’t satisfied with simply experiencing African countries on holiday. I knew I needed to immerse myself more, and live and work there.
Volunteering in Ghana
While at college, I was a children’s birthday party hostess, saving enough money to take a year out to volunteer as an English teacher at a primary school in Ghana. Life there was one of the most fulfilling experiences, working with a class of 43 children aged 7-13, most of whom I can still picture and name. I developed such a rapport and connection with them that I travelled back to visit them on several more occasions. This experience was life changing for me, and evidence that I thrived most when working in a cross-cultural context with children facing disadvantage and inequality. I knew it was my true calling to channel my passion and energy into making a difference.
Following my year out, I went onto complete a BSocSc (Hons) in Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. A perfect subject choice for me, I had an opportunity to further study the diverse ways people live. I volunteered for two years at a community centre in MossSide, coordinating an after-school homework club for Manchester’s growing community of refugee youth. Most children accessing the club were from Somalia, the next best thing, I thought, to living and working with children in Africa. I envisioned graduating and moving overseas. With time, I realised that as a native English speaker, born and raised in the UK, perhaps I could make more of a difference working within my own local community with people experiencing displacement, loss and inequality.
After my Bachelor’s degree, I completed an MSc in Development Studies at The London School of Economics and Political Science. During this time, I became very active with Student Action for Refugees. This led me to become a volunteer researcher for a national Refugee Council study, where we examined the inclusion of refugee children within education in the UK. I also volunteered for a year with a small NGO operating from a Kings Cross church, as a befriender for those who had become destitute while claiming asylum. Due to the prevalence of mental ill health amongst the people I was supporting, the organisation funded me to complete an NVQ Level 3 in Mental Health, for which I am grateful. While a challenge to study for this alongside my Post Graduate study, it proved an extremely useful course.
After moving back to my hometown of Leeds, I started my first paid position working with refugee children and families at The Children’s Society. I held several different roles there between 2006 and 2016, including:
Designing and delivering a range of specialist and targeted programmes promoting child wellbeing, inclusion, integration and cultural diversity amongst refugee and new migrant children.
Managing befriending and mentoring programmes
Leading a large and diverse team of dedicated staff, volunteers and students on work placement.
These roles enabled me to develop particular expertise within other fields: disability, child protection, culturally specific forms of child abuse, child sexual exploitation prevention and support, children’s rights, participation and child empowerment.
Alongside my paid employment, I have always enjoyed volunteering. I ran community bassed ESOL classes for three years with The Refugee Council in Leeds and obtained a TEFL qualification. In 2009 I joined BHA Leeds Skyline, where I volunteered for four years. Leeds Skyline provides support services for anyone in Leeds living with or affected by HIV. HIV prevention and gender equality were the subjects for my undergrad dissertation and postgraduate thesis, so it was fantastic to gain some solid work experience in this area. My volunteer role involved:
Co-delivering groups for those newly diagnosed and those living with HIV
Co-delivering health promotion programmes and activities
HIV prevention talks to key stakeholder groups
Challenging stigma and discrimination in the community
Planning and delivering a range of fundraising and awareness raising events such as World AIDS Day.
To support my practice base in this area, in 2011, I completed a City and Guilds Qualification ‘Working with people with HIV’.
After The Children’s Society faced several rounds of funding cuts, I decided to pursue a longstanding aspiration to work for an international NGO. I joined World Vision, the largest global children’s charity, where my role was a Children’s communication and sponsorship specialist. I managed a portfolio of 60 development projects globally; the highlights of my time were field trips to Senegal and Malawi. I worked at a grass roots level with children, communities and regional colleagues delivering training on child communication and child voice. I am grateful for these incredible experiences. My decision to leave World Vision was a difficult one, as I felt completely aligned with the mission and vision and so in awe of the work they do. However I once again realised I could make a further impact when working daily with the people and communities I was serving.
After World Vision, I joined a specialist team delivering services to young people affected by Grooming and Child Sexual Exploitation, based in a multi-cultural area of Yorkshire. Child sexual exploitation prevention and support was an area I felt particularly passionate about, due to personal experiences, and from my involvement with young refugees who had experienced this particular form of abuse. Here, I built on the knowledge and experience acquired a few years earlier, when I worked part time as business development manager with Basis, a specialist CSE service in Leeds.
I worked at this new role between 2014 and 2016 and it involved:
Providing intensive one-to-one support and advocacy to young people who had experienced grooming, trafficking and sexual exploitation and abuse, with a particular focus on minority ethnic children.
Leading on preventative programmes in schools and communities, designed and delivered with an inclusive and culturally sensitive approach.
Designing and facilitating awareness raising and training events for professionals in various settings.
Due to funding issues, I was hired on a limited contract. Faced with the strong possibility of being made redundant, I was offered the opportunity to attend a career coaching and development day organised by Judith, an extremely supportive and inspiring former manager from The Children’s Society. I embraced this opportunity and I am so glad I did!
Going it alone with a new opportunity – working with you
My vision came alive, to share the knowledge and skills that I had acquired over the last fifteen years in youth and community work with any who could benefit. The career coaching with Mike White Associates helped me build my aspirations to set up my own company. I could offer workshops, training events, educational programmes, consultancy, and project management across all my specialist practice areas. This has included children, adults, and professionals - working within schools, community settings and organisations.
My fiancé, family, friends and colleagues encouraged me to take that leap of faith, and take charge of my life and future. In May 2015 I set up Nola Ellen Education, Training and Consultancy and I am today living that dream!
Alongside my freelance work, I currently work in a flexible part time role with Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Service. This role enables me to welcome and support people seeking sanctuary in my home town and keep up to date with current asylum and refugee practice, policy and legislation.
The journey from here
While my passions are many, my mission is singular: to utilise all my skills and abilities for the greater good, to be heart centered and offer an exceptional service to meet your needs.
Click here to read more about the range of services I offer and contact me so we can explore ways that I can support your particular needs.
I look forward to hearing from you and the opportunity to work together!