Construction a life changer for domestic abuse survivor Sophia

A woman who survived domestic abuse has credited going into the construction industry with changing her life, going onto work on a community project for a women’s refuge.
Sophia Barnes, of Sleaford, during the project to create a garden for a women's refuge.Sophia Barnes, of Sleaford, during the project to create a garden for a women's refuge.
Sophia Barnes, of Sleaford, during the project to create a garden for a women's refuge.

Mum-of-two, Sophia Barnes, 35, lives near Sleaford and has opened up to her colleagues at Willmott Dixon about her experience, explaining why she wanted to put herself forward for the annual Willmott Dixon Foundation Trainee Challenge to plan and deliver a garden transformation at a women’s refuge in Lincolnshire.

Despite not using a refuge herself, Sophia was inspired by her own experience as she left an abusive relationship in 2007 to start a new life. Feeling the need to be able to look after herself, she recalls buying her first toolkit and carrying out DIY jobs in her home, before enrolling in a course to improve her skills.

It was a decision that would lead to meeting her new partner, starting a degree, and joining Willmott Dixon's four-year trainee programme for build management in 2018.

Sophia said: “Being in this job and going into the construction industry has changed my life. I am a different person now. It’s made me stronger and given me immense confidence. Having been at such a low point where I felt vulnerable, I have entirely changed my life for the better.”

The five day project was supported by Willmott Dixon volunteers, along with supply chain partners. They installed 26 metres of raised planters including two vegetable beds, two flower beds and a large sandpit for children at the service.

Sophia has also organised DIY courses, combining maths and English for the women at the refuge, with help from a local college – similar to the educational support that helped her get started.

She added: “I know these are the tools that will help these women get ready for the next stage of their lives once they are able to set up home on their own, and I couldn’t be happier that the college has agreed to partner with the refuge.”

Sophia has encouraged Willmott Dixon to include information about domestic abuse in the company-wide wellbeing policy document that goes to its 3,000-plus employees. A toolkit will help its people identify when colleagues are suffering or are in danger due to violent or manipulative partners.

“One in three women experience domestic violence of some sort in their lifetime – and an astonishing one in five men experience it too,” Sophia explained.

“This is why I am so pleased and proud that Willmott Dixon is including a dedicated section in its wellbeing policy – possibly the only contractor to do so.

“It will help managers recognise the signs and respond accordingly. It shows that Willmott Dixon is a great company to work for because they are better prepared to deal with this important issue.”

Having graduated from the Willmott Dixon trainee programme, with two more years to go in her five-year degree, Sophia is committed to allowing others to experience the industry’s benefits.

She added: “In the early days, DIY was a focus, a reason to get out of bed. It made me feel stronger – even though I wasn’t. And there are points now where I am still not. What happened to me still haunts me. It’s hard to forget it.