I left school at 15 and after a brief and unsuccessful stint as an apprentice hairdresser, I went travelling. I had a string of unskilled jobs -  bar work, yacht cleaning in a Spanish marina and working in Burger King in Gibraltar. In my 30s I came back to Cornwall. By then I was a single parent with a young son. So it was back to working in a pub to get by. It was there that one of the regulars, John, a university lecturer, persuaded me to take an English A level and from there to go to university to study English Literature – at the age of 37.

The thought of going to university was completely daunting to me as none of my family or friends had been. But after getting over the initial fear I loved it. Although I was still quite shy, it helped me to gain confidence and awakened a hunger for learning.

After I graduated, I began volunteering at HMP Channings Wood in 2001 helping the writer in residence, who was developing the concept of Storybook Dads. I saw for myself just how difficult it was for imprisoned parents to keep in touch with their children…and the negative effects this had on them. Alongside my volunteer work with Storybook Dads I gained a PGCE in adult education and became a literacy tutor.

In 2002 I moved to HMP Dartmoor to teach literacy and in my spare time I’d wander around the wings with a digital recorder and some kids’ books asking the men if they wanted to make a CD! Then I’d edit them on my home computer. Even though the Governor was supportive, getting the scheme off the ground certainly wasn’t easy.

Working from within the prison, things tended to be 10 times harder and 10 times slower than on the outside. For the first 4 years, I was working from a prison cell so had no access to a phone line, or internet access. Prison security doesn’t lend itself to ideas involving new technology and there was some negativity as it was perceived to be ‘soft’ on prisoners. But the feedback from prisoners was so positive that eventually we won over the prison staff too.

“Some prisoners said it had helped to heal rifts with their partners, some were saying that it was the first time that they really felt they were building a relationship with their kids.”

The scheme was expanding but I needed was more help and more money so in 2003 I registered Storybook Dads as a charity. It was hard work as I’d never had any office or business experience so I had to learn everything as I went along.

I built up a small but completely dedicated team of staff, trustees and volunteers and together we took the charity from strength to strength. Our work became valued and recognised by the prison service and we’ve received several national awards. Gordon Brown even wrote a chapter about my work in his book Everyday Heroes. Then in 2010 I was stunned to receive an OBE!

To be honest, it feels like I’ve been swept along by the expansion and ever-changing needs of the charity. But I still remember how I felt when I was an unskilled barmaid with little faith in my abilities and this helps me to empathise with the prisoners we work with.  Many have had little or no education and their total lack of confidence is palpable.

They associate education with humiliation and failure, which is really sad. But we show them that education and self esteem can be life changing. All they need is someone to have a bit of faith in them - just like John down the pub had faith in me back in 1997 – a simple thought that changed my life.