David Heeney started taking drugs aged 12, quickly progressing to ecstasy, cocaine and then heroin. By 24 he had lost his right arm, which he puts down to “an accident” while injecting drugs.
Eventually he found himself behind bars for causing criminal damage but while in Mountjoy he somehow managed to “get clean” and was determined to turn his life around.
After getting out, the Drogheda man (39) learned to read and write as well as drive with one arm, and has found a new focus as a volunteer in his determination to continue his recovery.
Heeney has helped newly arrived Ukrainian refugees in Co Louth and recently got a job with the Louth Volunteer Centre and the Addiction Rehabilitation Centre at Smarmore Castle in Ardee, where he has become a recovery advocate.
“In 2017 I received a four-year sentence, with two years suspended for criminal damage, and that day changed my life forever,” he says. “I was going to prison again but I was determined this time not to let history repeat itself like the time before when I came out and lost my arm. I decided to get clean in prison, which was no easy thing to do when I was surrounded by drugs.
“When I was released at the end of 2018, the Peter McVerry Trust gave me an apartment in Tallaght. I realised quickly that it was going to be hard to find a job with my disability and my prison record. I knew I couldn’t go back to old friends or my old drug environment, but I hadn’t been drug-free in 17 years so I felt a bit lost.”
Volunteering helped my confidence. People that knew me before gave me a second chance. I could go into shops again without security watching me because they heard I was volunteering and determined to change my life
His sister recommended volunteering and he hasn’t looked back. “I signed up with Kayleigh Mulligan at the Louth Volunteer Centre and used to come down to Drogheda from Dublin each week. I started helping out at a number of events and with different charities.
“Volunteering helped my confidence and got me talking to people again. People that knew me before gave me a second chance. I could go into shops again without security watching me because they heard I was volunteering and determined to change my life.
“While I was helping with a 5km charity run, I met the garda who arrested me,” he says. “She was genuinely delighted for me and I thanked her for what she did in pushing for a jail sentence because it was the turning point for me.”
Despite difficulties gaining employment, volunteering enabled Heeney to get a CV together. “I had no work or education experience to put on a CV before this. If it wasn’t for volunteering, I would have had no CV, no confidence and no self-belief to return to education.”
“Mountjoy and volunteering saved my life and gave me a new one and I’m so grateful for that. It’s all about bettering myself now and looking to the future.”
Manager of the Louth Volunteer Centre Kayleigh Mulligan is extremely proud of how far he has come in the past few years. “It can be a difficult step to take when coming from a challenging background and concerned about things like Garda vetting, but there are roles out there for people from all backgrounds and of all abilities.
“We started David with some short-term roles with local groups, and he later progressed to an ongoing role and ended up one of the most reliable volunteers we have. It goes to show that giving someone an opportunity can really make a huge difference to both themselves and to an organisation.”