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Former Big Issue vendor aiming for the Commonwealth Games

Joel Hodgson has been abandoned, homeless, and adopted. Now he’s half a second away from the Commonwealth Games in his adopted home city of Glasgow...

Joel Hodgson is smiling, looking sharp in his business suit, as we meet in the plush offices of Freshfields law firm in central London. The 26-year-old is recounting the details of his extraordinary journey – one that has taken him from a cramped orphanage in Belize to a village in Scotland, and from sleeping rough on the streets of London to carrying the Olympic flame (pictured below).

Today, as he crams in a challenging training regime around his working day, the former Big Issue vendor’s hopes and dreams are focused on Commonwealth Games glory. It’s an idea that would have been incomprehensible to the boy who spent his formative years squeezed into a care home in Belize City, where he and his two older sisters, Yvette and Keisha, were left when their mother was unable to care for them.

Joel Hodgson training in London. Photo: Tom Campbell

“From what I remember we were all pretty happy,” Joel explains. “But then nothing really bothers you at that age. There were lots of us in the children’s home. We’d sleep top-to-tail on these mattresses on the floor. I remember there was one girl, she was only about 12 or 13 but was the mother of the group.”

Four years of Joel’s life passed, days moved along slowly, unremarkably, until a Scottish couple walked through the door.

Joel was such a happy wee boy with the most beautiful smile. His sisters have always said his smile will get him anywhere in life

Royal Navy marine engineer George Hodgson was based in the tiny Central American nation at the time. He and his wife Shona already had two children when she was introduced to the Dorothy Menzies Childcare Centre, where Joel and his sisters were being cared for. They immediately fell in love with Joel, Yvette and Keisha. Not knowing they were siblings, Shona says their bond was clear.

“We were taking a bunch of girls out from the centre every second Saturday and one day there was a tiny young boy and he wouldn’t stop crying because he thought his sisters were being taken away without him,” Shona says. “That was little Joel. He was really just such a happy wee boy with the most beautiful smile. His sisters have always said his smile will get him anywhere in life.

“After one month of taking the kids out on little day trips I spoke with George about adoption and we thought we could help make their lives better. We knew we could give them a fresh start and got them enrolled in nursery and a school where I was working, until things were all finalised.”

Joel Hodgson pictured with his family in 1990.

After six months, the period of time when a relative can still ‘claim’ the children after the adoption process begins, they left the sunshine of Belize behind for the grey skies of Scotland. “I left to get the kids enrolled in school back home while George finished his final weeks in South America. We never looked back.”

My overriding memory of Scotland was seeing snow for the first time

The west coast of Scotland might have been gloomy compared to the sun-soaked beaches of Belize but Joel cherished his upbringing in the post-industrial village of Renton, West Dunbartonshire, in the shadow of Glasgow.

“My overriding memory of Scotland was seeing snow for the first time,” he says. “Belize is a very hot country and we came to Scotland in October. Just around Christmas I looked out the back garden and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I didn’t know what it was. I ran out in my little Y-fronts, so excited, and had to run back inside because it was so cold! That’s my earliest memory of Scotland.”

Alongside George and Shona’s daughters Cathy and Grace, the three children from Belize were welcomed with a warm embrace. “I loved Scotland, I still do,” Joel smiles. “I had an amazing childhood. It was a culture shock of course but I’ve got nothing bad to say. It’s a beautiful place and people are so friendly.”

A young Joel Hodgson with mum Shona

A hard-working boy with a passion for sport – Joel won countless medals in athletics and football and grew up an avid Rangers FC supporter – he still speaks of his debt of gratitude to mum Shona, who raised the children on her own after George died of cancer in 1995, 40 years after joining the Navy and just three years after the family returned from Belize.

“I idolised him,” Joel says. “As soon as we got adopted I clung onto George. It’s never something I’ve been able to get over. I have to give my mum a lot of credit for raising all of us on her own. She never missed a football match, was always the loudest parent on the touchline, while also managing to keep us close to our roots in Belize. She’s a wonderful woman.”

I idolised George. It’s never something I’ve been able to get over

“George was a very determined person, he was going to work, getting treatment for the cancer and still taking the kids to their football and dancing,” recalls Shona (pictured below with Joel). “Joel looked up to his dad, everyone did, and you see how determined Joel is now. He gets that from his dad. It was such a devastating loss for everyone. Having to tell a seven-year-old that his daddy has gone to heaven, just three years after starting a new life here, it was so tragic.”

A young Joel Hodgson with dad George

Fast forward to 2009: 21-year-old Joel, with a broad Caledonian brogue, has left his call centre job for the bright lights of London with girlfriend, Michelle. But too soon their dream came crashing down – five months after moving to Croydon, thieves smashed their way into their flat while Joel was out and assaulted Michelle.

The pair were terrified. A lack of witnesses, they were told, meant police couldn’t take the incident further. “The police said there was little they could do and that we weren’t safe here,” Joel explains. Without money or work they were facing homelessness.

We slept on the steps of the police station

“The police advised we pack our stuff and go to the council, who then told us that as we hadn’t been there six months we couldn’t claim a local connection and that we should go back to Scotland,” he recalls. “We were both determined not to go back, we wanted to make this work. It was still new and we were set on giving this a crack. We slept on the steps of the police station that night.”

Joel Hodgson pictured soon after he began selling The Big Issue in London

After one night sleeping rough the pair turned to a hostel for young homeless people, where only Michelle was offered help. Joel was told he was on his own – unless he pretended to be gay. “Because of my age I was seen as a male that should be able to look after himself,” he says. “They basically said the only way I would get a hostel was if I said I was gay. Then I’d be deemed vulnerable. We decided to stay together.”

At this point Joel had lost contact with his family. “My mum and I had a fall-out before all this and the stubborn sort of person that I am, it just dragged on,” Joel recalls. “They didn’t know I was homeless or certainly didn’t know how bad it was.

“I didn’t want to go back to them in this situation. I was an adult and I thought that I was still being treated like a child, which I had made clear, and I didn’t want to get back in contact until I had something positive to show. It was a hard time but Michelle and I supported one another.”

With nowhere to turn, Joel and Michelle opted to spend their nights in visible, seemingly safe places for one month: the steps of Westminster police station, well-lit spots around Hyde Park. “We’d sleep basically anywhere that had cameras,” Joel explains. “We felt isolated. We were scared. We thought that if anything were to happen to us, at least there would be someone watching.”

I didn’t want to go back to them in this situation. I was an adult and I thought that I was still being treated like a child

It took Joel just that first night on the streets to turn to The Big Issue. It wasn’t an easy step but he was soon earning some money selling the magazine on the streets of a city that had promised so much. “The Big Issue is everything, really. The moment that I pin back to everything changing was walking through the door of The Big Issue office in Vauxhall,” he says.

“I’d no idea what to expect but the staff made me feel so welcome, all of my doubts and worries went to the back of my head. I felt like someone was on my side for the first time in a while.”

Grafting day in, day out selling at his pitch on Horseferry Road allowed the pair to pitch up at a campsite in Chingford, where they stayed for three months while saving for a deposit and first week’s rent on a flat. “The place wasn’t nice, it had smashed windows, but it was inside. It was getting close to winter and you could start to feel the cold. It wasn’t much but it was a house.”

Everything changed in May 2010 when, after 10 months as a vendor, Joel put himself forward to lead a corporate placement scheme between The Big Issue and international law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, which invited him to sell the magazine inside its sizeable London office one day a week. He was an instant hit and staff were so impressed by his work ethic he was offered various internships. Eventually, after three rounds of interviews, he landed a full-time job in the billing department in 2011.

Photo: Tom Campbell

“This job has transformed my life. I’ve got security, a career. I can plan for the future, rather than looking at everything as day-to-day. And The Big Issue is a big reason I’m sitting here today.”

It didn’t end with simply pounds in his pocket, however. Joel regained contact with his family and he was voted by his new colleagues to carry the Olympic Torch in 2012, an experience he describes as “the proudest day of my life”. Publicity around this introduced him to the Belize athletics team, who invited him to hoist their national flag in the Olympic stadium ahead of the opening ceremony.

Now, after turning heads as a talented fledgling runner, Joel has the opportunity to represent Belize, the country he left two decades ago, in his adopted home city of Glasgow at this summer’s Commonwealth Games. He has his sights fixed on running the 400m at the 20th Games in July. To qualify, he must run this distance in 45.7 seconds or under at any one of 16 official events before June.

This job has transformed my life. I’ve got security, a career. I can plan for the future

“I’ve got my eye on qualifying at a Leigh Valley race in a few weeks,” he says determinedly. “I want to qualify here in London.” With a current personal best of 46.2 seconds and three months of a gruelling six-days-a-week training regime ahead, he is confident he will be lining up at Glasgow’s Hampden Park at the Games.

“It would be pretty special to represent Belize, especially in Glasgow,” he says. “I’ve never actually been to Hampden before. It’s about 20 miles from where I grew up. I used to watch Rangers play cup finals there on the TV but I never got to go. Fingers crossed I get to finally pay a visit this summer.

“But the pull, to me, is more to inspire the next generation. That’s more important than where I finish. Just getting there to compete would be good enough.

I’ve never actually been to Hampden before. It’s about 20 miles from where I grew up

“The plan from then on is to look to the World Championship next year [in Beijing] and then the 2016 Olympics in Rio after that. Right now I want to inspire young people in Belize, to show them that there is another way out for them. There are not a lot of opportunities over there for them. A lot get dragged into drugs and crime when they finish school. It’s important for me to inspire people, that they can be what they want to be.”

Back in Scotland, his family couldn’t be happier with how Joel has lifted himself out of adversity. “I’m so proud of Joel,” says a beaming Shona. “He could have hit the bottom but refused to be dragged down. That’s just Joel all over, that’s our family.

Photo: Tom Campbell

“He dropped out of contact and it was difficult for everyone but he has turned his life around. He’s my boy. What he went through led to where he is now and everyone is so happy for him. The Commonwealth Games would be the icing on the cake for him.”

As our interview winds up and Joel leads me to the front door of the gleaming Freshfields HQ, he stops at the exact spot in the bustling staff canteen where he used to stand, magazines in hand, selling, charming and saving for the future. “It still feels strange,” he says, “but I guess it always will be. It still feels like it all happened just yesterday. I couldn’t have dreamed that this is how things would end up.”

It hasn’t been easy but Joel has sprinted back from the brink. Whether he’s strapping up his shiny leather brogues or well-worn running spikes, this is a man well and truly standing on his own two feet. Now just try and stop him.

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