Leaders with lived experience: Lee Willows, founder and chief executive, Young Gamblers Education Trust

In the last of five pieces on leaders who used their experiences to set up voluntary organisations, Jude Habib speaks to someone who recovered from a problem with gambling

Lee Willows (Photograph: Stephen Thomas Cole)
Lee Willows (Photograph: Stephen Thomas Cole)

In 2011, Willows was out with a group of friends, one of whom suggested going to a casino. He’d never gambled before, but his luck was in and he won.

He went on to gamble again and again. Before long, he’d spent his life savings and turned to bank and payday loans to fund his addiction. After he’d exhausted all other avenues, Willows stole £19,000 from his employer, an organisation that works with young offenders. In 2013, not knowing how to stop, he planned to end his life. A call from his mother stopped him.

Willows received NHS counselling for his addiction and a suspended sentence for the money he stole. Motivated by his experience, Willows looked at the charities working in this space and saw a complete lack of organisations working to prevent gambling addiction through education. So he founded the Young Gamblers Education Trust (known as YGAM), whose purpose is to inform, educate and protect young people from problem gambling.

"I’ve had to work really hard at building up trust with our board of trustees, the stakeholders we engage with and colleagues in the wider third sector," he says.
But he adds that "being a leader with lived experience brings a deep personal understanding of the social issue – empathy and authenticity".

Willows wants to make sure YGAM remains rooted in lived experience and says the key to making a difference is collaboration. His advice to others who are thinking of setting up charities for similar reasons is to find out if any charities are already working in those spaces and see if there’s a way to collaborate beforehand. Enthusiasm alone doesn’t deliver a good charity, he says.

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