Alex’s Adventure was started by Nicole Ryan in January 2016 when her brother, Alex, passed away after taking a synthetic drug at a house party.
My background is in marine and plant engineering having studied at the National Maritime College. I graduated in 2015 and went out to sea, where I was working with Irish Ferries. I was working there for a little while and it was going well, and then I got a call about my brother taking ill and I had to get back home. After everything that happened, I worked across a number of different sectors, until I went full-time with Alex’s Adventure last year.
Alex was taken into hospital after taking a synthetic drug at a house party, and he passed away four days later. He thought he had done his research on the substance he was trying. This is something that happens quite regularly, and I felt no one was willing to address the issue and try bring about change. At that stage, I felt like I had lost everything, and I was at a point where I had nothing else to lose. This was when Alex’s Adventure started, and it was initially just workshops. In the first year, there was a lot of travelling and everything was voluntary, so it was tough. I was gathering a lot of feedback and I was trying to identify what the main issues were and who it was affecting most.
“Teachers didn’t have the time to be learning all this extra stuff”
The was two main problems I found; the teachers were given no resources when it came to substance abuse, and for students, while they really enjoyed having an external person coming in doing workshops, they wanted to know and explore more than we could cover. With that, I decided I wanted to run workshops with teachers to enable them to do what I was doing. It was a four-week programme and they would get access to all the materials I used.
Then in January 2019, I went into schools and conducted a study which incorporated different methods, because I wanted to test if there was a bigger impact with me being in the room, or if it could work without me present. We got great feedback from this, but again more issues came up.
Two new issues arose; number one being the teachers didn’t have the time to be learning all this extra stuff, and the second was the teachers had literally no understanding of substance abuse. I held face-to-face interviews with students to talk about their experiences. The main thing we found is that they didn’t want to discuss this topic with their teacher or someone they see every day.
Should substance abuse be thought in school?
I would love if substance abuse was on the school curriculum – that would be end goal really. My approach is different to anything that’s been done before, so I don’t know if it’s possible to make it on the curriculum. But if we keep telling kids ‘don’t do that, it’s bad’, it’s not going to change anything. They need to be educated on the subject and understand the danger that goes with taking these deadly substances.
“Drug use is a massive issue in every community across Ireland”
The kids we tend to speak to are aged between 14 and 16. From my experience, I’ve learned that second year school students are probably the best to start discussing this with. In first year of secondary school, everything is all new and can be scary, but when they reach second year, they begin to settle down and form groups, and that can be the beginning of the experimenting stage.
Feedback from parents
Parents know this is a necessity and something their kids need to be aware of. Drug use is a massive issue in every community across Ireland. It’s a problem everywhere and parents are very open about it. We’ve held a number of workshops with parents and they all seem to really appreciate what we are doing and it’s a great way for them to learn about things they might not be aware of.
“500,000 is the number I always have in my mind, and by that, I mean 500,000 students impacted by the programme”
I started off with Social Entrepreneurs Ireland in May 2018 and that gave me a lot of confidence at a time where I didn’t really believe in myself. I went onto the IGNITE programme after that and that was a phenomenal experience for me. Imposter syndrome was a huge issue for me in the beginning, and I still suffer from it some days, but those programmes made me realise that what I was doing is right.
I still feel I’m only at the beginning of this journey. I started almost four years ago, but I’ve only been in business for a year. There’s a lot more to come and I’ve big plans for the future and where I want to go with the business. 500,000 is the number I always have in my mind, and by that, I mean 500,000 students impacted by the programme. In the next three years I hope to take it outside of Ireland, and I have my eye on the UK and the US.
My advice to any aspiring social entrepreneur would be to pace yourself. If what you are solving was so easy, it would have been done already. At the start, I had this mentality that if I don’t solve this now, someone else is going to come along and take my idea. But that doesn’t happen so don’t rush yourself when solving a problem.
Interview by Stephen Larkin
Published: 1 April, 2020