“Society shouldn’t give up on people who have criminal records”

12 August 2019

We hear from Barclays Relationship Support Manager Sabrina Boanu–Williams MBE about how her experience on the streets as a teenager inspired her to help others in difficult circumstances – and why she’s “shocked and privileged” to have been awarded an MBE for her work helping hundreds of prisoners gain the skills to find work after release. 

“I didn’t go looking for an MBE – I just like giving back,” says Sabrina. “Life is not always about work and making money.”

Sabrina understands more than most how the right help at the right time can turn a person’s life around. After running away from home as a teenager, she lived on the London streets for six months, but was helped back on her feet by homeless charity Centrepoint. Using the opportunities made available to her, she managed to go to college and forge a career in finance – and has wanted to “give back” ever since.

Now a Relationship Support Manager in the Energy and Infrastructure Team at Barclays, where she has worked for the last 16 years, Sabrina was this summer awarded an MBE for her work helping equip hundreds of prisoners with the skills to get back into employment, through the Barclays employability initiative LifeSkills.

“I think someone from Barclays nominated me,” says Sabrina. “It was a real shock and privilege when the letter came through the door. It was completely out of the blue – no one in my family had ever got one.”

Sabrina says it was changes in her local community in south east London that prompted her to take action. “When the riots kicked off in London in 2011, youth clubs shut down and there was no positive outlook,” she explains. “I felt there was a need to support younger people, and I used Barclays LifeSkills programme to do that.”

Working with Barclays’ LifeSkills initiative – a programme that launched in 2013 to teach young people the skills necessary to thrive in the workplace – Sabrina recognised the value it could bring to a broader section of society, specifically prisoners.

Sabrina Boanu-Williams and Prince Charles.

Sabrina receiving her MBE from Prince Charles

“I thought there was a gap in the LifeSkills programme at the time. There wasn’t anything for people over the age of 25,” Sabrina explains. “After seeing people in homeless shelters with criminal records and talking to a friend who had been in prison about the stigma when people leave custody, I wanted to apply my experience of the programme to prisons. Society shouldn’t give up on people who have criminal records. So I decided to start my own initiative.”

“Before this, the prisoners thought all bankers care about is money”

Sabrina’s prison initiative began with a trial in October 2016, during the bank’s annual ‘Make a Difference’ volunteering campaign.

“Within my role at Barclays, I manage privately and publicly financed infrastructure projects and one of those projects happens to be a category B prison” she explains. “I spoke to a contact there about the work we do through Barclays LifeSkills.”

Sabrina advertised the opportunity to volunteer on the Barclays Citizenship Portal – an internal site for the bank’s colleagues who are interested in projects that benefit society – and was inundated with responses.

On her first visit to HMP Thameside, back in 2016, she was joined by a team of 12 who worked with the inmates to deliver a number of workshops – including CV and interview skills, and building confidence and digital skills.

“Initially there was some apprehension but by week five, everyone was really happy,” recalls Sabrina. “Before this, the prisoners thought all bankers care about is money. It broke down barriers. We always get a feedback score of nine or 10 out of 10.”

In its first two years, the programme has supported six prisoners into employment and worked with over 100 people between the ages of 21 and 56. The team of volunteers continues to grow too, with over 150 individuals taking part in the initiative to date.

Expanding the programme

“At the moment we volunteer with men in HMP Thameside, but the aim is to expand the programme into female prisons,” says Sabrina. “This September I am launching a pilot programme at HMP Pentonville Prison. I’ve now set the programme up as a social enterprise called Skills4Reform, and going forward I want to bring on board some other companies.”

As well as organising and facilitating the sessions for prisoners, Sabrina offers advice to individuals after release via email.

“One individual recently reached out to me and I’m looking to see what options there are for him to get a job in IT,” she says. “Some approach me with other issues like finding a place to stay. I like to try and help and reach out to my contacts from charities I used to work with. If anyone wants to get involved in sports, I send them to Bobby Kasanga. Bobby is an ex-gang member who founded Hackney Wick FC – a football club dedicated to community engagement, uniting young people and tackling youth violence and gang influences.”

As a mother of two, Sabrina says it can be a challenge to make time for volunteering: “I’m quite busy but I spend about eight hours per week on the initiative. Barclays has been accommodating and Jes Staley was very complimentary about the programme.”

Sabrina Boanu Williams MBE

Sabrina was inspired by her work with the Barclays LifeSkills programme

“I was nervous – but when I spoke to Prince Charles I felt okay”

Sabrina’s efforts did not go unnoticed by her colleagues and the community – and she was nominated for an MBE to applaud her achievements.

Sabrina attended the ceremony in May with her family, where Prince Charles presented her with a medal.

“There were a few celebrities there, including tennis player Andy Murray and TV presenter Chris Packham. I was very nervous, especially at the beginning, but when I spoke to Prince Charles I felt okay,” says Sabrina.

“I told him about what we’ve achieved in the community and prisons and he congratulated me. I found him very pleasant and down to earth. When I went back to work on Friday, I took the medal to show my colleagues.”

Starstruck, humbled and passionate – Sabrina is determined to continue volunteering and enriching her community. “We’re living in a really challenging world at the moment, but you can get so much joy in helping others.”