Wednesday 31 July 2013

Employment and Cystic Fibrosis: Jimmy's Journey

Jimmy Gregory shares his story of how, with the help of The Prince's Trust, he hasn't let cystic fibrosis stop him achieving his dream of working in the creative industries.

As a young child growing up in the 1980s I was pretty carefree, getting up to all the kinds of mischief that’s expected of a kid who’s just been let loose on the world. As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, life began to get serious quite quickly for both myself and my family. I developed a very serious and inhibiting cough which prohibited me from throwing myself head first into all of the childish activities that I’d been so actively involved with before. 

I was in and out of the local doctor’s surgery so frequently that, looking back now, I really feel annoyed that I wasn’t offered some kind of loyalty card! Each time I paid a visit, my parents were told that I was suffering from asthma and that, although the inhalers they had prescribed in the past weren’t working for me, they could prescribe another which ‘should’ alleviate my symptoms. Each time we’d leave and trial the new treatment in the hope that my condition would improve...

...It didn’t.

I was quickly deteriorating and it got to the point that even the short walk to school each morning would become such a chore that I would regularly have to take breaks to catch my breath and on some occasions I would cough so much that I would be physically sick.

It took a long period of going back and forth to the doctor’s surgery before they finally relented and referred me to Leicester Royal Infirmary who took a chest X-ray, saw something was wrong and sent me for the ‘sweat test’ which led to a diagnosis of Cystic Fibrosis. Being a genetic condition, my younger brother was also tested for the disease and although he was not showing any symptoms at the time, he was also diagnosed.

As you can probably imagine, this double dose of bad news hit family life like a sledgehammer to the chest. No parent wants to hear that their child is ill and similarly no child wants to hear that they are no longer ‘normal’. To also find out that you’ll require frequent stays in hospital and that you’re life expectancy has just plummeted, is a pretty bitter pill to swallow as an eight year old child.....and I’ve swallowed plenty of pills in my time.

Despite my condition I’ve always been fiercely independent. I love my parents to bits but as I entered my teenage years I wanted to show them that I could fend for myself and that they could begin to take a step back from their responsibilities. As a result I made a conscious decision to continue my education away from my home town of Leicester. And so I ended up studying Media Communication at the University of Lincoln.

It was here, whilst doing a unit in desktop publishing, that I fell in love with Graphic Design. From this moment, I began to tailor my studies and my extra curricular work towards creative projects. This involved working on some marketing projects for the Student Union, a local charity and also creating a music magazine as part of my final year independent study.

Upon graduating I moved to Leeds to pursue a career in the creative sector and applied for every single design job going. Competition was incredibly high and I received my fair share of rejection letters and emails. To pay the bills, I worked in the correspondence department of a major car manufacturer handling customer complaints. Although I was good at the role, it wasn’t an area that inspired me and so I continued to apply for design jobs throughout. After just over a year of handling complaints, I got what I thought was my lucky break and I accepted an entry level job at a local design firm.

Unfortunately, this coincided with a downturn in my health and I was admitted into hospital within the first few weeks of the role. This, along with a few rookie errors, meant that my probationary period was not extended. This hit me hard and I felt that the creative career ladder had been snatched away from me before I had even had the chance to plant my foot on the first rung. I became quite depressed and once again my health suffered.

This led to me being signed off for around two years, but throughout this period, I never felt comfortable just accepting tax payers' money to cover my rent and to pay for the groceries in my fridge. So I made a pledge to myself that once my health improved, I would return to the workplace. Whether it would be within the design sphere, or biting the bullet and returning to customer service didn’t phase me at this point. I just wanted to get back into the workplace and become self sufficient once again.

It was then that my mum told me about The Prince’s Trust and although I’d heard of the charity, I wasn’t aware that they could offer any kind of support to someone like myself. However, my mother being the stubborn and persistent woman that she is, persuaded me to get in touch and I ended up enrolling on the Enterprise Programme which looks to support those who are considering setting up their own business. The course itself gave me the confidence that I could realise my design ambitions and even if no studio was willing to take the chance on me, I could still go it alone and establish myself as a freelance designer. So upon completing the course I set up Tearaway Studios, my own small and very humble graphic design label.

The first few months were incredibly hard and I would have actually been much more comfortable on benefits. But I took solace from the fact I was now making real steps to realising my dream and getting paid for the thing I love.

Slowly things began to snowball and customers began coming back for more work. I applied to The Prince’s Trust for a business loan which allowed me to upgrade my software and invest in a professional website to showcase my work. That was two years ago and since then I haven’t really looked back.

I’m still running Tearaway Studios and I’ve worked with clients across Europe, Asia, America and Australia. I now also work for The Prince’s Trust as a Job Ambassador on a 12 month contract and my involvement with them has enabled me to meet and speak with HRH The Prince of Wales on two separate occasions, as well as various celebrities including Dynamo and I’m also about to launch my second business which looks to help the next generation of creatives to break into the industry.

As you can see, it’s a pretty exciting and busy time for myself. CF has always had a profound effect on my life and restricted some of the things that I can do, but I have never let CF rule my life.

(This blog was adapted from a speech given by Jimmy at an event at Harewood House, Leeds to an audience including HRH The Prince of Wales. The picture above shows Jimmy (centre) meeting The Prince of Wales at the event)