Posted in: Community Interviews Work

A guiding light on a life-saving journey

Mark catches up with Catherine Devereux, founder and trustee of Headlight Project, about the charity’s evolution, her story and what’s in store for the future.

5th May 2023

Mark Easby

Mark Easby

Mark Easby

Written by Mark Easby,
Managing Director

Mum. Lawyer. Charity founder. Award winner. And so much more besides. Catherine Devereux is inspiring and humble in equal measure. From the darkness, she’s been a guiding light in creating and leading Headlight Project – a charity that’s changing and saving the lives of children, adults and families throughout the Tees Valley.

As brand partners since their foundation, we understand their vital impact on the communities closest to us. So much so we’ve recently strengthened our support by becoming 5th Wheel members. And with Headlight continuing to grow, we’re proud to play our own small part along the way.

On the back of being recognised at the recent Tees Business Awards, Catherine sat down with our Managing Director, Mark, to discuss the charity’s journey so far, how we sensitively evolved the brand and her personal story.

For those who don’t know you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and Headlight Project?

“Headlight Project was set up in loving memory of my husband Russ, who died by suicide in May 2018. The aim of the charity is to reduce the number of suicides in the Tees Valley. We do this by providing therapeutic support to children and adults bereaved by suicide and by providing preventative education in workplaces, schools and colleges.

“The initiative has continued to grow with the love and support from family and friends, as well as numerous fundraising events and donations received from many business colleagues in the local area. This is alongside our strong board of trustees and the very special team that makes up the project today.”

Cath Devereux, Headlight Project

It’s a sad reality that there’s a need for charities like Headlight. But how have you grown from volunteers raising money for a cause, through to making a difference and changing lives first hand?

“I’m not sure I really had a definitive plan when the charity started. It had its roots from realising that there’s very little mental health support for children in schools. Being from a family of educationalists, I knew how important this was and how aware schools were of being able to provide such support so that children can grow up with resilience. It came into sharp focus when Russ died, as I had my own grief to manage but our children were my priority and I didn’t want them to be damaged by what had happened to us as a family. I also knew I wanted to do something to try and prevent suicide. It was something that wasn’t on my radar at all until Russ took his own life and I realised just how fragile our minds can be and how it could happen to any one of us.

“Those who are bereaved by suicide are considered at higher risk of it happening to them, so one way of prevention is by providing one to one and trauma therapies to those affected. We also become known as the place to contact, all down to the strength and skills of our amazing team. More importantly, it was somewhere to connect to others that had been through such tragedy, and to share experiences which are incredibly powerful. Ultimately, those that benefit from the support end up paying it forward and fundraising for the charity’s cause – so that we can keep providing the support to others.

“That has also enabled us to grow organically and build a team of highly qualified therapists – providing one to one counselling, support hubs, play therapy for children and trauma therapies – together with a central team that organises the charity’s operations.”

It’s fair to say that Headlight has come a long way from when you first started. How would you say the brand has evolved, and how have you maintained the meaning and story?

“We’ve been on a big journey in the last 12 months, that’s really cemented the aims and objectives of the charity and the direction we’re going in. We’ve looked at the team and strengthened the governance of the board by having the right skill set of trustees and we’ve worked with professionals like Better to reflect this journey.”

Headlight Project - Proud to be Fifth Wheel Partners

Headlight Project - Proud to be Fifth Wheel Partners

“Identity wise, the truck has evolved as the charity has, and as you know the truck is of very special significance to me and our family. Russ lived and breathed trucks through the family business everyday, but I didn’t want Russ just to be remembered because of how he died.

“I wanted the logo to be a symbol of positivity and hope. The original logo was designed by our three girls and was the idea of a friend of Russ’, and so it will always represent the charity for me.

“Transitioning the truck from a beautiful and meaningful sketch into a professional identity that truly represented the charity was the starting point. Better did that and more, drawing out meaning to build a unique and relatable brand style. Featuring the headlight orange which has special significance to our family, Better developed a primary colour palette supported by a warm, crafted and welcoming type choice. This added relevance and narrative to the toolkit, which was further complemented by a set icon and image style, alongside reframed headlight elements that act as a brand device to illuminate journeys; the ups and downs of life; and the progress that can always be made.

“In a way, its evolution was because I had to let go to some extent, so that it could grow and be run professionally and accountably like any other organisation. That wasn’t easy because I felt like I was letting Russ go, but in reality I was doing what was right for the charity to ensure its success and sustainability.”

Removing the focus on Russ’ name was a difficult call. But why was it important for the future?

“This was one of the most difficult decisions I had to make, but again I listened to the views of those around me and the team at Better. Otherwise what would be the point in working with experts? It certainly helped me focus on the charity as its own organisation that had to be allowed to evolve in order to survive. It will always have a deeply emotional connection for me but we had to build a brand that people had faith in, could trust with their own emotions and with their very personal stories of their loved ones. It needed to be about those people, and not just mine and Russ’ story. That meaning has been retained and developed in the organisation, and our story will always be the foundation, but it has become so much more than that. It’s a local charity trying to deal with a community problem for local people who need it.

“Russ is still in every aspect of the logo. And his personality and character shines throughout the organisation. He’s often with me in the decisions I make about the charity, and my life in general.

“He was calm and sensible, and gave things lots of thought. I honestly don’t think he would want his name to be the focal point going forward; he would want the element of hope to be, and that’s the ‘Headlight’ and its squiggle – ‘the guiding light when the road ahead is dark’.

“Russ had such a wonderful style of his own and I think the truck embodies that as well as the colour orange which is a favourite of ours and our family. I can’t look at something orange now without thinking about Russ. I feel Better have really captured him from the original drawing the children did but have now made it something that will be timeless.”

How has Headlight’s culture changed from being a really personal cause to a fully functioning, professional charity?

“It’s done exactly that. It’s grown from such a personal, emotive cause to fully functioning, professional organisation. That’s been down to the team who embody the ethos of the charity, and also the trustees and professionals we’ve engaged and helped us achieve this.

“The numbers of those seeking help has grown inordinately but I would like to think we’ve embedded a culture of professionalism, as well as retaining a Headlight family ethos. Those who need our support don’t want a faceless organisation; they want the team to understand. The care we give to the adults and children we help are at the heart of everything we do.”

Mark sits down with Cath Devereux from Headlight Project.

“Similarly, the ability to appoint more therapists to cover the work was imperative. So too was appointing Katie, our Project Lead, to deal with overseeing the whole referral and administration process. Together with Suzanne, our Operations Manager, we’ve made the organisation more efficient whilst keeping the cause always at the heart of it. I’m extremely proud of the team – they all work incredibly hard and Headlight Project is part of every one of them.”

As the charity and the brand has matured, marketing has become a key focus to help build the profile of the charity. What’s been the impact and how has it supported your growth?

“The marketing changes have really reflected how far we’ve come. When we set out we all dipped into social media as well as doing our own jobs; there was no consistency and as a result, no clarity on what we did. Mental health is a huge area and it has many facets. We realised we needed to be clear about our aims and objectives, and whilst in an ideal world I would want to try and help anyone who has suffered trauma, suicide was always our focus so we had to stick to that. Then we looked at what prevention would look like, as we aren’t set up or equipped to be a crisis service.

“To this end, we knew we needed help in covering all social media platforms, to make them consistent so that the charity’s message was portrayed consistently. Karen came on board and did an incredible job of streamlining the platforms and getting us to think about what messages we wanted to put out there and increasing our presence.

“On the flip side of that, we’d evolved to a point where the website – which is our main tool and first port of call for those who need help or make referrals – wasn’t meeting the needs it needed to.”

With the organisation quickly expanding, you mention that the charity had perhaps outgrown certain parts of the brand and website. Having built some solid foundations, what was next?

“In a short space of time we’d established the charity and gained some really strong traction. As we thought about the future and what that looked like for our vision of a fully functioning, professional organisation, it made us stop and recognise where the gaps were. Better offered crucial support, and in terms of brand, that meant adding structure and consistency to the excellent groundwork that was already in place.

“A new set of clear brand guidelines helped us define how we should be using the brand, giving us templates to work with and making brand executions easier and more effective. This also presented an opportunity to assess the role of our marketing tools, revealing the need for a new website that fit our new aims and objectives while being a true reflection of our evolved brand.

“We worked hard with Better on the content but the ideas and design the team came up with blew us away again; small touches but such important attention to detail because they understood the emotion behind it. That didn’t however stop them approaching difficult conversations with us about how the brand should look. I’m sure, as well as it being ‘work’ to them, they too became immersed in the story and cause – I think that’s what really stood out to me.

“Because the brand is consistent and strong it’s become instantly recognisable and trusted and that means that we can start to attract funders and corporate partners.

“We’ve been operating in excess of three years now and that stage is really crucial as many charities fail within this time, but I think our brand has helped us secure the trust and professionalism that is needed to enable us to apply for bigger grants and for companies and individuals to support us and want to be associated with us. You and the team were instrumental in this and we will always be grateful for this and for the huge amount of time and dedication that was given for free.”

Education, changing perceptions and suicide prevention is a key part of your work, as well as now delivering support services. How does both the brand and website support this?

“Launching the new website has been another milestone for the charity. It’s helped us to focus on our core aims and objectives, and to really show what preventative education involves. This isn’t just limited to the work we do in schools and workplaces in terms of presentations and recognised suicide prevention training delivery, but also to highlight key research, resources, guides and signposting information. This means we’ve started to connect and work with other charities and organisations that deal with suicide prevention, and this of course increases our reach, impact and ultimately I hope to fulfil our objective of reducing the number of suicides in our area.

“At the same time, we’ve also recognised the need to speak directly to our growing audience of fundraisers and supporters; whether they be corporate partners or members of the public. Updated sections for news, events and stories now reflect the diverse range of activities taking place. As well as enabling us to slightly shift our tone and perception, this content has fed directly into the recent launch of our new corporate partners programme, the 5th Wheel Club.”

Speaking of the newly formed 5th Wheel Club, we’re really proud and privileged to be one of its first partners. What does the club mean to the charity, and how can others get involved?

“The club was our way of formally acknowledging and celebrating those that support us, whether they be businesses or individuals.

“Its name is filled with meaning, and is another link back to Russ. Like the 5th Wheel of a truck, our 5th Wheel members provide stability to the charity. We simply couldn’t deliver the vital services we do without them.

“Membership publicly shows your support for Headlight Project and in turn raises awareness about mental health and suicide prevention. It can also help companies fulfil their corporate social responsibilities, while added benefits include a free suicide awareness presentation, priority access to programme places, discounts on training and an exclusive annual event. You can head to our site to find out more.”

Now Headlight’s an established charity and brand, what’s next?

“To get those numbers down – the Tees Valley area still has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. We work everyday to achieve this by providing the therapeutic support and trauma therapies that are so desperately needed, but which are not widely available on the NHS or without long waiting lists and educating on prevention.

“Importantly, educating children about why it’s important to talk about feelings and thoughts so they don’t carry emotional baggage with them throughout their lives. I’m sure that if we can do that, we will in turn have a healthier society, less suicides, less depression, less need to medicate and less days off work through illness.”

And what about you? What does the future hold?

“The systems and personnel now in place mean that I’ve been able to focus on my own job as an employment solicitor. People often think the charity is my job but I never started it to make it my living. I suppose I’m the figurehead which as you know I do struggle with at times as it’s not about me, it’s about the team. I give my time now to help others and always in loving memory of Russ, and the special person he was and always will be to me.

“I have a better balance now. Before I was drowning in the work I was trying to do for the charity, as there’s so much involved and we have to be accountable. But I also needed to earn a living for myself and our girls, and be a mam too. I love my job as an employment lawyer, and I recently took up a position at a national professional services firm which reminded me where my skills lie and how hard I’d worked when I was younger to become a solicitor. I never wanted to give that up but because of how far we‘ve come and the people who‘ve helped me including Ian – who coached me to understand my role – it’s helped me gain some of my own time back.

“That time is precious and the girls need me to be there for them. I’m passionate about my job and also about my work at the charity but the girls are my priority. I can say now that my job and my work for the charity are paddling along well together.

“For me, personally, I am in a good place. I never thought I would ever say that after Russ died. I can’t put into words the depths of my despair when he died – my worries about our children and the effect on them, how I would earn a living for both me and Russ, but somehow I’ve survived. I haven’t done that alone, I have the most incredible family and friends who despite seeing me at my worst never gave up on me.

Cath Devereux, Headlight Project.

“I have someone special in my life who has been a great support, has seen me at my lowest and who still wanted to be part of us, who is kind and loves the girls and they love him. We call him the ‘Guardian of the Galaxy. He is the ‘tall guy’ to me and he reminded me how to laugh again, like really laugh and be happy. That happiness will never be the same as it was but I am happy and the girls are too. That’s not to say it isn’t hard still or that I’ll ever get over losing Russ or for the girls, their Dad, but I know we have a future and Russ will always be at the heart of that. Always, he could never not be.

“I hated my grief but now I embrace it. She’s here to stay so I could keep raging or learn to accept the hand that had been dealt to me. There is a lovely poem by a lady called Donna Ashworth that reads:

‘You don’t move on after loss you move with. You must shake hands with grief, welcome her in, for she lives with you now. Pull her a chair at the table and offer her comfort. She is not the monster you first thought her to be. She is love. And she will walk with you now, stay with you now, peacefully. If you let her. And on the days when your anger is high remember why she came, remember who she represents. Remember. Grief came to you my friend because love came first. Love came first.’

“That’s very true.”

Visit Headlight Project to find out more, including becoming a member of 5th Wheel Club.

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