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Let's Get To Know Mark!!

Interview With Mark Houston

Well, Mark, that’s you now nearly 2 months into your new job in the Link. What are your thoughts on the Link now that you’ve been here a while?

Mark: I’m starting to get my feet below the desk. The first two weeks were unusual because it’s not common to have the guy retiring still there when you arrive, but it has been invaluable and thanks to Cliff for that. The staff have been very welcoming (thankfully!) and there don’t appear to be big egos at play.

I’ve known about the work of the Link for 10 or 11 years, so it’s not new to me in that sense, so I came to the job with that, and have worked in this sector in Newtownards for 7 or 8 years. I’ve attended meetings here and been connected with previous people here, so that’s made it smoother. I think my observation initially is this “with Covid” world that we’re now living in, presents a huge challenge and opportunity for us. Those who need our services are going to need them even more. When furlough ends, peoples lives may become even harder and as such, they will need more support, including those that we would never have thought would have come across our radar.

Our services and our availability will become even more necessary, and I think we’re equipped and will be more equipped to meet that need; To be a real practical presence in the town, to be a part of the faith presence here, and also just to have the privilege to get to do what we do. The phrase “we get to do this” has followed me around. You don’t have to do this, but we get to do this alongside staff and volunteers who have that sense of “this is worthwhile committing to”, these are my early impressions of the Link, I’ve really enjoyed it. I feel privileged to get a seat on the bus, really!

You’re a new face in the office; tell us a little bit about yourself?

Mark: I’ve lived in Newtownards for 11 years, so I think I’m an honorary member of the town. I married my childhood sweetheart, Heather. We’ve been married for 35 years. I’ve 2 daughters, Sarah is 31 and Rachel, 28.

I’m very passionate about people getting the chance to be fully themselves. That’s what drives me. I’m thinking of the words of Jesus where he said “I came that they may have life and have it to the full!” And that is not necessarily about prosperity, but it’s more about getting to live a fulfilled life. We know, and work with so many people whose lives, because of the challenges they face, aren’t fulfilled. So, again, ‘we get to do this!’.

If you have any spare time, how do you fill that?

Mark: If the board are reading this, I don’t have any spare time! But I like keeping active, I go to the gym and workout. I like to keep myself healthy. I also like music. I play drums, play guitar. I have done for many years. I like to write my own stuff. I recorded an album recently, that reflects my spirituality, my faith journey, my life journey and I’ve thrown that out there into the world, into the court of public opinion.

That’s what I do in my spare time. I am very active in my own church at North Down CFC. I get to lead worship there, and I get to speak if and when I have something to say, which is very liberating, because sometimes we’re expected to speak when we maybe don’t have something to say and feel the pressure to say something!

What drew you to apply for the job of Centre Coordinator at the Link?

Mark: I saw the ad, and something in my own spirit stirred. This has happened once or twice in my life, and I’ve learned to follow it. I thought that my heart and my skillset and my experience could be something to occupy a good seat on this bus! The seat was becoming vacant as Cliff was retiring. I’ve known Cliff for quite a few years and, when I first saw the ad, I thought, I’m not applying for his job! But once I knew he was retiring, I thought this is a good opportunity and the vision of the Link really connects with who I am. So I was delighted to have the opportunity and feel very committed to serving.

How would you say that your previous experience has prepared you for the job?

Mark: I’ve worked in the private sector, the public sector, faith and community sectors. A couple of years ago, I deliberately took a step out into the private sector, as I sensed I was beginning to freewheel a little bit and I wasn’t being as challenged as I should, and an opportunity came for me to work for a company I had worked for 25 years ago, when they asked me to come and direct their operations.

I thought this was a great opportunity to test my skills, sharpen the saw so to speak and it was also an opportunity to live out my faith in a sector that is renowned to be hard-nosed and very commercial. Now, I’ve come back with this extra experience. But to take the story right back, I started my work as an apprentice in Harland and Wolff Shipyard and I was the kid that left school with no qualifications. School was an inconvenience. I couldn’t wait to get out, but I got the opportunity of employment as an apprentice and then some technical training which I really took to in a college setting, and what it showed me was that an education and a work opportunity could change a life.

I think I bring that passion back in now. Education = choice. And I think choice = opportunity. We work with lots of people, who life has dealt a bad hand for some reason or other, and they haven’t had the choices. So I think I bring that passion here. Most of the work I have done has been done around leadership, and around enabling people to be the very best version of themselves.

My job isn’t to be the smartest person in the room. In fact, if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room! My job is, and I hope I bring the ability to recognise people who are very good at their jobs and enable them to have the support and the space to do their job to the best of their ability.

I believe we have great people, staff and volunteers, who do their jobs very well. My job is to keep trying to equip them. Another aspect of my job is to succession build. Each of us need to be looking for people to come along after us and look to who we pass the baton to.

We have this vision and this privilege to work for the Link, and we get to do it for a while, and then we get to pass it on. So, those things drive me. I’m a people person, in the sense that, I’ll get very protective, if not defensive, of our staff and volunteers. It’s my job to make sure they are healthy, well, equipped, looked after and paid on time!

I’ve also made my own mistakes so I I could write a book on things not to do! My girls sometimes say, “Dad, what would you do in this situation?” And I say, “not sure, but here’s what we shouldn’t do.

Have you had a chance yet to think about what your vision is for the Link?

Mark: It would be arrogant and unwise for me to talk about my vision at this early stage but I am very clear what the Link’s vision is, and I see my job as being to serve that vision. That vision lines up with my life values in terms of equipping those who are on the margins, for whatever reason, but I guess if I had a vision within that, I use this analogy. I want to make sure we have the right people on the bus. I think when you have the right people on the bus. In terms of the Link, staff and volunteers, I see our volunteers as every bit as important as our staff. They need looked after and trained and equipped in the same way. If we get the right people on the bus, it can be easier to find out what seat is best for them and not everybody stays in the same seat.

Depending on where we are as an organisation, we might need you in this seat, but at another time, we may need you in another seat. I think if you get the right people, the seats can be interchangeable. So, my vision is to equip our staff and volunteers to be the very best versions of themselves. That will mean the Link will be the very best version of itself. And if we do that, somewhere in the heavenlies, God will honour that. God works, and God worked, and then stood back and said “It’s good” and then stood back and said “That’s very good” and then God rested. Work is incredibly important, working hard and working creatively is something that I expect from myself. Creating a culture of committed and enthusiastic hard work alongside a culture of rest and reflection I something I’m very passionate about.

I’m really enjoying the role so far and the staff and the volunteers have all been so friendly and welcoming. I feel like I have been here for quite a while now, even though I haven’t. I feel like I belong. I find myself talking about “our” and “we”.

If I do have a larger vision for the link, it would just simply be this: That we be the best that we can be at what we do. Take the MARC project for example. If anybody in Ards or North Down meets or encounters someone struggling with addiction, I would love their first thought to be, “Let’s contact the Link” That we are the “go to” not because we are Billy Big Heads, but that we do what we say. If people think about a charity shop in the town, they’ll come to the Link shop. If we say we are coming to pick something up, we come and pick it up. And not only that, but they will also treat you well and they will put a smile on your face. That may be the only encounter that that client has with anyone in that day.

The guys that come to the Drop-In, the people who serve there may be the only people that the clients may encounter that day. When people encountered Jesus, they went away changed and He said, “Greater things than this you will do in My name!” So, anybody we meet today has the potential to encounter Jesus in some way.

Final Question: Tell us something unusual about yourself that people may not know.

Mark: People probably don’t know that I have an album out there, that I released in March, and I love the fact that I got to do that. It’s only now that I am getting the chance to start playing the music. I write music most weeks and at the moment, I’m also dabbling in writing a book about “Fear”.

Thank you for that, Mark


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