Unhappy in his job as a supermarket butcher, Paul Halford was searching for a new direction in life – and it was through his passion for coaching junior football that he found it.

Paul, an amiable Geordie, had started coaching Winlaton Dragons, on Tyneside, when his son, Christos, took up football in 2011.

One little boy, called Theo, was different from the others. It took him longer to understand instructions, and he even had a tendency to score in the wrong goal. Theo was autistic and Paul decided that he needed a greater understanding of how to help him.

I realised that I was the problem, and it was a question of me learning more, and making small adjustments that made a big difference to the way I coached him. 

Paul attended seminars on autism and put the changes in place. They included the simple technique of hanging a yellow big in one of the nets, so that Theo could differentiate between the goals.

It was also a question of giving him a little bit more time and the difference it made was significant.

Paul was born and raised in Newcastle. His dad was a gas engineer, and his mum was a playgroup leader at a local community centre. He says: "Maybe it was because of what she did that I always loved kids, and the football coaching was part of that."

However, after studying health and social care, he began a 20-year career at a supermarket in Newcastle, initially as a Saturday lad and progressing to the fishmonger’s department. That was followed by a full-time job as a butcher, before he had taste of management as an assistant manager in the bakery.

He ended up returning to being a butcher, as a team leader, and stayed in that role for seven years.

But Paul felt increasingly unfulfilled and, after the birth of his fourth child, he applied for a job as a support worker at Cedar House, a residential home run by the North East Autism Society at Newton Aycliffe.

Other than attending the seminars as a football coach, I had no real experience, and, after the interview, I went home wondering why I’d even thought I had a chance. But that chance, I got a phone call offering me the job and I snapped their hand off because it was a chance to work with kids and go in a completely different direction.

Paul did his last shift at Tesco on Christmas Eve 2018 and started at Cedar House on January 7, 2019, as part of a team helping to look after eight children with a wide range of needs.

Each has their own furnished apartment, made to feel like home, with family pictures on the walls and personal belongings.

It’s just an amazing place and I can honestly say I haven’t looked back. The support I’ve had has been first-class and the rewards come with seeing the positive results of what you do.

Caring for one young resident, who enjoys the outdoors, has included taking him on football stadium tours and long bike rides.

"It’s about giving them positive life experiences," Paul says. "It’s the simple things that mean the most – like seeing the pleasure on his face when he does a skid on the bike."

With another child, the job has meant a trip to Edinburgh Zoo, horse riding on the beach in Northumberland, and taking him to a pottery shop to make a plate for his mam.

Every job has its challenges but there’s so much variety and such a learning curve.

Instead of the five-day week he was working at Tesco, Paul now has the flexibility of working the same number of hours over fewer days in different shifts.

The way the organisation is run is brilliant – I’ve never known a management team like it, and the rest of the team are fantastic people to work with. They really care about what they do and want to make a difference.

Paul, 38, has undergone intensive training in strategies to minimise the residents’ anxiety and negative behaviours, and is now in a position where he can train new starters. Ultimately, he’d like to progress into a management role, but is happy for now because he feels he’s learning so much every day.

My advice to anyone who’s out of work, or doesn’t feel fulfilled in their job, to think about what I’ve done. I did a job for 20 years that I didn’t want to do – my only regret is that it took me so long to find something a really love.

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