Dan’s last words to me before he left home for the last time were: "I love you Mum. I promise I won’t die." He was 16 when he died.
He was a lovely boy. He was bright and articulate, funny, interesting, and interested in so many things. He was great company.
He always wanted to know what I thought about things — something in the news, an ethical or political or moral issue. "So, Mum, what do you think about . . . ?" He’d got really interested in politics and global human-rights issues, and had joined Amnesty International. He’d signed up to be a bone-marrow donor, and for a Youth Alpha course at our church.
He was great at helping with stuff around the house, especially if it was a bit of a challenge. He used to do errands for old ladies on his paper round. He could also be really cheeky and affectionately annoying, like wobbling my upper arms and calling me "old woman". He had banter going with people: harmless teasing, the sort that makes you feel better, not worse, about yourself. He loved photography, playing the guitar, drama, X-Box. He had a lovely girlfriend, Jenna, and they had been going out for more than two years. He was voted prom king at the end of Year 11, which is basically a popularity test. He was also runner-up in various categories: funniest boy, boy most likely to be Prime Minister, nicest eyes.
We set up the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation in response to Dan’s death in January 2014, after he took Ecstasy at an illegal rave. We started all this just wanting to warn other young people and parents, and we decided to talk to the reporters that kept knocking from the morning after Dan died, so they’d know.
We thought it would be enough just to tell people Dan died, that this stuff is dangerous, and they’d stop risking it. But shock tactics aren’t effective, and can even be counter-productive.
What happened to Dan could happen to anyone taking illegal substances. His was a lethal dose which would have killed whichever one of the five boys took MDMA that night. There was no way of telling. Of course, young people will always have a tendency to think it won’t be them; but I hope we can help them identify with someone who also thought that — and was wrong.
Although we’d been on a six-week course entitled (ironically, as it turns out) "How to Drug-Proof Your Kids", we hadn’t realised quite how much drugs are a normal part of the world our young people inhabit, whatever family or social background they’re from.
So the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation is a drugs-education charity. We work with young people, parents and carers, teachers and professionals, to support young people to make safe choices about drugs. Through our schools programme, Making Safer Choices, we deliver assemblies and workshops to students, and help teachers to deliver effective drugs education in schools. We also provide information and resources online for parents, and deliver drugs-awareness workshops for parents.
We also use Theatre in Education to communicate these important messages to young people, through a play we commissioned from the award-winning playwright Mark Wheeller. We’re currently trying to raise funds to tour this round schools. [Arts, 8 April]
We’ve both been working in other jobs all this time, until last week, when my role was made redundant. Tim works for L’Arche, the international learning-disabilities charity, as an administrator. I worked for Croydon Council as a manager in adult education.
Our main difference from other programmes is Dan. I have to be careful about how we use his story. Nevertheless, storytelling has always been a really powerful means of communicating important messages.
Dan’s story itself is just the starting point for essential information about the effects, risks, and consequences of drugs and alcohol, harm-reduction advice, and important life skills that young people need to navigate choices safely.
It’s a worst-case scenario, which we acknowledge, and if we didn’t we’d lose credibility; nevertheless, it really happened. It’s always a possibility with the unknowable nature of illegal drugs and New Psychoactive Substances, also illegal since 26 May. There are untold degrees of harm that drugs can and do cause, and that’s the broader message.
The other special aspect of our approach is our work with parents. I know, personally and professionally, that it’s absolutely essential. As a parent, you don’t know what you don’t know. As a parent for whom it went horribly wrong, I now know what I wish I’d known and said and done.
We’re working in 29 schools now across south London and further afield. Tim and I also talk in prisons, as part of a victim-awareness and restorative-justice programme. Victims of a crime speak to the prisoners about their experiences and the impact on them, and the prisoners then reflect on their own crimes and victims. The course also looks at forgiveness.
Most people in prison for supply of drugs think theirs is a victimless crime. We talk about what happened to Dan, what the impact was, what it’s like sitting through a trial as a victim, and how we feel about the supplier, who pleaded guilty. There are so many light-bulb moments on this course.
It took me 18 months before I was brave enough to speak to young people. I knew if they didn’t listen I’d be so upset. In the end, our drugs educator, who was leading a workshop where I’d come just to check the arrangements, was held up, and I had a room full of teenagers on my own. I just talked about Dan, and about what happened, and there was absolute silence as I talked. That hugely helped my confidence, and it’s been my experience since then, wherever I talk about Dan.
In prisons, the reaction is incredible, really humbling. Big, hardened criminals are so moved by what happened to this boy they never met, and when we talk about the supplier and forgiveness, that seems to affect them really profoundly as well.
I don’t think drugs are going to go away. People have abused different substances from time immemorial, and everything is so widely available now through the internet, and increasingly normalised through media.
I like to be in control. I’ll have a glass or two of wine, but I’ve never been really drunk, and I’ve never wanted to put anything in my mouth that might take me to a place I couldn’t get out of if I didn’t like it.
Lots of churches do good work with people who are dependent on drugs, but there’s always more that can be done. The Church could certainly do lots more for young people and parents. People think that, if children and young people are growing up in a church community, they’re somehow immune to the dangers that other young people face.
There can also be a tendency to think that people who take drugs are "bad" people; but drugs are very much part of the world all our young people live and move in, and in a way in which they weren’t when their parents were their ages. If we don’t recognise this and do something about it, and try to lose our natural tendency to judge others so we can feel we’re safe because we’re "not like that", then we’re seriously letting our young people down.
Tim and I will have been married for 25 years this October. We had two boys, Jacob and Daniel. Tim and I often said, despite our worst efforts as parents, they turned out to be two really lovely boys. Now our family has a massive hole in it.
I honestly don’t know how it’s possible to come to terms with this. Someone who’s a few years further along this road than me said early on that it’s about growing the muscles to carry this burden. I haven’t even begun. Maybe I’ve begun the beginning. I don’t know.
I always had a belief in God, but made a personal commitment when I was 15. There have been some extremely difficult things I’ve had to face, and I came to a place where something this awful could happen and I could know God was with me in this very darkest of places. Losing Dan has totally transformed my faith, because of the encounter with God it brought.
Forgiveness is a messy thing. Sometimes I think about Dan getting up first thing every morning for his paper round, for ten days to earn the £20 he gave the supplier, who in return gave him drugs that killed him. Sometimes it really bothers me what happened to that £20. . .
I’m happiest when I’m with Jacob; and in my dreams when I’m holding Dan.
I pray lots for Jacob, to be kept safe, and safe in God’s love. I pray lots for the work of the Foundation. I pray for the supplier, and for Dan’s friend who led him this way.
If I was locked in a church, and could choose to be with anyone at all, it would be Dan.
Fiona Spargo-Mabbs, founder and trustee of the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation, was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.