Ex-offender tells his story of violence and prison to help young people choose right path
- Credit: Dan Gaze
A man who turned his life around after a stint in prison is sharing his story in a bid to help struggling young people realise they can learn and grow from their mistakes.
Dan Gaze, now 37, says he had a troubled childhood growing up in Stevenage, suffering both physical and mental abuse at the hands of an adult.
He was expelled from his first school at just nine years old, and later expelled from secondary school.
Dan said: "I'm a true believer in behaviour as a form of communication and back then I was trying to communicate that I was struggling, and I would do that by swearing, kicking the teachers or running away."
As a teenager, Dan took up boxing and at just 16 began working as a bouncer, first in Stevenage and then London. He said: "I shouldn't have legally been going in clubs, let alone working the door. I was put on a pedestal I shouldn't have been on and my ego took over.
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"I was also looking up at all these role models, looking for a father figure."
One of the men Dan worked with in London was serial killer and sex offender Levi Bellfield, whose crimes include murdering schoolgirl Millie Dowler in 2002.
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"I was shaking that guy's hand every night and he was obviously going off killing and raping women," Dan explained. "That badly affected me."
One evening in Stevenage, a very drunk Dan got into a vicious fight after being challenged over the way he was speaking to two women he knew. "I got punched in the face and reacted," Dan said. "I'm just lucky that guy's still alive - that's how bad it was. I have deep regret for it.
"At that time, my life wasn't coming together and I was spiralling out of control. I was going to end up in prison or dead, but I felt untouchable."
Dan was sentenced to 18 months in prison for actual bodily harm in 2002 and served seven months. "It felt like a long time," he said. "I was told I wasn't allowed a cellmate because I had a violent conviction. I sat there and cried my eyes out like a baby.
"There were people who were so jealous if you got a letter, they would fight you. There was so much hatred. There were people trying to hang themselves or cut themselves with razors, and even people eating their own faeces for tobacco.
"For me, prison was the correct punishment. It was the wake-up call I needed. I knew I had to change my life at that point. I wanted to help young people, but nobody would let me near a young person because of the record I had."
Dan eventually got the break he needed and did some work with youth clubs. "I couldn't tell the children my story, but I could see a lot of me in some of them," he said.
Dan has gone on to completely turn his life around. "I became a PE teaching assistant at a school," he explained, "and went on to build my career from there, becoming head of PE and assistant head of the school, in charge of behaviour".
He left his role as assistant headteacher in August last year to set up his own business, Dan Gaze Support Service, to offer mentoring to young people.
Dan explained: "I go into schools, talk to young people and be a listening ear. I try to help as many young people as I can around Shefford, Hitchin and Stevenage, especially at the moment with lockdown. Mental health in young people is so crucial. Children are struggling to regulate or to find their emotions and explain them to us. Behaviour is a form of communication and children and young people are crying out for help at the moment. They just need someone to talk to and someone to listen to them with a non-judgmental ear."
His advice for young people who are struggling: "Reach out - there are good people out there who want to support you. Don't shy away. It's good to talk. That's so important. Find positives from negatives. If you do make mistakes, you can change."
His advice for parents: "Catch them doing something good and praise them. Positive reinforcement is so important."
As for his future plans, Dan said: "I want to help as many people as possible to go down the right path. I really want to help the probation service - show young offenders there are different ways to go.
"The journey is just starting. The road ahead will be winding, and there will be some bumps along the way, but I'm determined to get there."