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‘I gave everything to my work – when I got home I was more confident’: Izak's story

At 20, Izak Lees thought life wasn’t worth living. The youngest of five children growing up in Norfolk, he was bullied at school and suffered depression as a young adult.

In 2015 he spent three months in Tanzania with VSO’s youth programme, International Citizen Service. It proved a turning point. Now 25, he has a fulfilling life as a crab fisherman in Devon.

Izak
© Ben Rutherford
"Often the last thought in my head before I went to sleep at night was 'I hope I don’t wake up'"

My childhood, if I’m brutally honest, was rough. When I was 9, I was moved to three different schools in the space of one year, so I was always the new kid arriving halfway through the term. I do have happy memories, but mostly I remember the constant bullying. I found it difficult to talk about it so I didn’t have much support. I just wasn’t equipped to deal with it and I ended up being not a very nice person myself. As a teenager, my mentality was quite vicious. I took a lot of drugs and I got in trouble with the police for street fighting.

Izak laughs with his counterpart Nasir as they prepare for a community action day
© ICS / VSO / Andrew Aitchison
Izak laughs with his counterpart Nasir as they prepare for a community action day

My dad’s partner suggested I apply for ICS. I didn’t know how I’d be able to raise £800, but I used social media to tell people what I was up to, and we held curry nights in the pub. The first step was applying online. Then we had an assessment day with team-building exercises, presentations and a one-to-one interview. “I was up front about my problems and - even with a psychologist’s report saying I would be able to manage - I wasn’t sure I’d make it through the medical clearance process. But the people running the day and interviewing me were really kind, it’s nice to know someone was fighting my corner when they made their decision.”

Volunteer Izak is loving his new life in Devon as a crab fisherman, 350 miles from home
© Ben Rutherford
Volunteer Izak is loving his new life in Devon as a crab fisherman, 350 miles from home

While I was waiting to hear whether I’d been accepted, I was worrying constantly. Right up to when I was stood outside the VSO offices in Kingston-upon-Thames saying goodbye to my dad, I was full of anxiety. But as soon as I arrived in Tanzania, I was able to put aside my worries. I was based in Lindi, in the south of the country. It’s called the “lost region” because the bulk of government investment goes to the north. We were helping high school kids to develop personal skills – how to approach a job interview, how to get into further education. I had a group of 17-year-old lads and we had a great relationship. These boys really opened up.

On placement, Izak helped high school students with their employability
© ICS / VSO / Andrew Aitchison
On placement, Izak helped high school students with their employability

The girls complained that the boys and the male teachers abused them, so we went head-to-head on these massive issues. I’d write on the blackboard: “How do you think it’s acceptable to treat a woman?” And we’d discuss everything. It felt like really important stuff. There was a kid who I could see was being left out and I’d always make a special effort to involve him. He just flourished with that attention. On my last day I said to my group of boys: “Never give up. Keep trying to be whoever you want to be.” But the whole time I was conscious that, compared to me, they have very few opportunities.

The three months I was there felt like a lifetime. At the end, I was given the Most Dedicated Volunteer award. I’d thrown myself into the work so completely, I felt I’d given it everything. When I got home, I was stronger and more confident. I struggled to find work in my home town because my reputation was so bad so I decided to move 350 miles to Devon and start afresh. I work on a fishing boat now and I have a great reputation.

I’m pretty sure of myself and what I’m capable of these days. I still think of my boys. For me to not make the most of my life would be letting down all those kids who would do anything for the life chances I’ve been given.

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