Oli evicts the island demons

THERE is something quite exceptional about teenager Oli Watts and it strikes you from the very first moment of meeting him.With a warm smile and wide, honest eyes, the youngster stretches out a welcoming hand and offers a firm friendly handshake in a manner not quite attributable to the average 17-year-old.

By Debbie Watson

THERE is something quite exceptional about teenager Oli Watts and it strikes you from the very first moment of meeting him.

With a warm smile and wide, honest eyes, the youngster stretches out a welcoming hand and offers a firm friendly handshake in a manner not quite attributable to the average 17-year-old.

He exudes affable charm.

This, I am comfortably surprised to learn, is a charm pleasantly absent of arrogance. It is a charm with a touch of admirable uncertainty and a charm which sets you almost instantaneously at ease.

Essentially, the Oli who greets you at his Suffolk home today is deeply changed. Fate had delivered him a strange series of twists and turns – but now he is someone on whom the world smiles favourably.

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Three short years ago, this gregarious youngster was crippled by his own torment and distress. Here, on the same sofa in which he lounges quite comfortably today, he had shed the abundant tears of frustration which had cruelly come to symbolise his own harrowing sense of social isolation.

A long and emotional time has been spent within these four knowing walls – but today they surround a boy of much greater and more admirable presence.

Oli was a victim of bullying. He suffered, one gathers, for a period of four long years at the hands of his own school peers.

He shouldered the hurt and endured the psychological battery for consecutive days, weeks and months. And yet, even now, this youngster cannot tell you what it was that must have earmarked him for this miserable journey of childhood pains.

"I can only tell you that I must have seemed very different. I must have been different or seemed

different to the other people around me," he said after several moments of silent pause.

"I certainly wasn't much of a social person back then and I know I was something of a swot because I did want to get on with my work – maybe that was what I did wrong."

Oli's words are a strange choice.

Was it so wrong that a young child should 'want' to work throughout his school days? Was it, moreover, so very wrong that he should have been focused on his academic work and getting on with the very thing that he had been requested to do?

Of course not. And yet, time and again it does prove to be the sticking point that sets out one young Suffolk schoolchild for a campaign of cruel and vicious bullying.

"I'm under no illusions about the number of people who go through some form of bullying and when I look back now, I realise that the sense of feeling like an isolated 'freak' is unfounded altogether."

Oli added: "There are so many people going through it and everyone who does is prone to thinking that they are the only ones to have ever felt like that. It's not true and it's far more common than we ever acknowledge."

For Oli, the campaign of bullying escalated so much that, in the end, he felt he had little choice but to move school and to start a new academic life elsewhere.

"The bullying was present throughout the whole time as it was at my first high school, but it grew and grew – to a point I just couldn't make it to school anymore," he said.

"The psychological impact is the worst of the lot and, in my case, I was so low in self-esteem that I feared the thought of leaving the house. I felt sick inside and it became like I was living life on my own desert island where no-one else could reach me."

It is, perhaps, this very analogy which drove Oli on his quest to reach and help others like him.

Perhaps, though he may not have perceived it himself, he has single-handedly been responsible for building a mass of inter-connecting bridges between the 'desert islands' on which so many Suffolk youngsters feel they are living.

For Oli's own suffering built the very early foundations of an informative and supportive web-based

initiative which now helps to ease the wounds of thousands across this community and beyond.

He is the creator of 'Pupiline' – an award-winning 'hand of friendship' which began in his home as a humble chance to share his views with other bullied people around Suffolk and extended into a massively successful business.

"I'd been at a new school for six months when I first thought about putting my experiences on to a website," he said. "The bullying was essentially over but I still felt I needed to 'cleanse' myself of those issues altogether. I thought if I wrote my story on a site, then that would be a way of helping myself as well as helping others.

"It was a hobby to begin with, but it felt a very proactive way of dealing with my experiences and letting other people share in them."

By a series of coincidences, the young Hadleigh boy – then 15 – found himself being called by a TV producer who had heard about his innovative site. In the half-term holiday in 2000, he was given a place on the Kilroy show and talked candidly about his own fears, feelings – and why he had wanted to help other people get off their 'desert islands'.

"As soon as the show was over, everything just exploded."

Moving forward on the settee in animated fashion, Oli enthuses this statement with emotions that cannot fail to express the genuine state of shock he must have been in on that day.

He smiled and said: "I thought I'd check my e-mail to see if anyone had made contact about the show and instead of a few messages, 56,000 hit the site within an hour.

"It was mad. Dozens of messages started being forwarded to me at a time and everyone was saying how helpful the site was. Suddenly it had gone from being a hobby to something completely different. It had instantly grown far quicker than I could ever have expected it to."

Within a few weeks, Oli found himself being encouraged down the path of forming a business out of the early website.

A board of directors – which includes himself and his dad, David – was formed and by April they had registered Pupiline as a limited company.

Nowadays, the website is way beyond a portal. It is a magazine which offers film reviews, presents exam tips and has great links with charitable bodies like Childline.

Indeed, in the most recent months, Oli has found himself presenting to company boards in a bid to get them to buy the additional Pupiline facility.

This expanded Pupiline concept is an online package of 'PSHE (Personal Social and Health Education) and Citizenship' learning materials which has been produced in partnership with Collins and is ideal for the related area of the school curriculum.

Indeed, the initiative – and the boy – has come a long way.

"I've certainly gained in confidence tenfold," Oli admitted. "I've come a long way since feeling too scared to leave the house and it does really shock me when I sit back and reflect on it.

"Sometimes I think that perhaps those early experiences must have been 'meant' to happen, because they got me to where I am and I feel a stronger, and better person for it.

"Every now and then we take calls from victims of bullies who want to get in touch to talk. We have spoken to people whose lives have been completely marred by the bullying they suffered years ago as a child. Some of them have been completely unable to form successful relationships because of their past.

"Stories like that make me feel very lucky to have had the chance to fight my own demons. Nowadays I am able to see that there is absolutely no shame in what happened to me. In fact, it gives me more empathy for the people who have difficulties in their life."

Filling Oli's family living room are various symbols to his success. There is the trophy awarded to him for being last year's European Young Achiever, the one presented to him by Childnet and another which marks his success in the Burger King Local Community Awards.

And yet, more than this, the room is filled with every sense of 'family'.

His smiling face and that of his brother, Harry, peer out from numerous pictures, a line of caricatures capture the individual grins of mum Annette, dad and brother, and the sun pours through the window on to a dining table which has more recently become a place of shared laughs and fun as well as a few important business meetings.

So does this essence of 'family unity' have anything to do with Oli's ability to defy the usual

aspersions slapped on the heads of teenagers?

"It may do. Who knows?" Oli suggested in a moment of contemplation as his dad passed by. "I know I'm really lucky that I've got a really close and supportive family but it doesn't necessarily translate that a good family will mean a proactive trouble-free child.

"It's a fantastic generalisation to say that all young people are badly behaved, but it's one that is very often used and it really angers me."

He added: "Britons are like that with their 'labels'. In the same way that we seem to knock successful people, we also seem to knock young people."

Oli also has very strong views about the academic impact on our young people. "I do think our school system here is pretty harmful because you are shut up in a box for so many hours of your young life and it can be really very stressful if you don't have empathy for the surrounds.

"There's a lot to be said for identifying what suits individuals – too many assumptions about what young people 'need' in their early years can be a really bad thing."

Even these articulated thoughts point so clearly to the changed Oli of today.

He is confident in his feelings, and although not completely clear about his own future – "I wanted to be a hot-air balloon pilot at five but it's changed hundreds of times since then and I'm still not sure" – he is surely going to keep on making a very big difference to those around him.

It's a 'difference' that he doesn't like to refer to too greatly. After all, he is still only 17, is in the midst of his A-levels and is trying, alongside his Pupiline commitments, to sink himself into his other 'teenage pleasures' like playing his drums in the Suffolk School of Samba.

"Sometimes I feel I need to remind myself – as well as other people – that I'm only 17 still and I need to slow down and enjoy being that age.

Showing an essence of those insecurities of old, he said: "My greatest fear is that I will end up making myself unpopular because of what I have achieved at my age.

"I'm constantly trying not to sound arrogant or too confident. I guess it's a fear linked to being ostracised before. I know I don't want that again."

Desperate to keep a perspective on his achievement to date, Oli added his own take on what he has done for his community, his peers, and perhaps for many generations to come.

"I think it would be far too grandiose to suggest that I have in fact changed the life of any young person out there, but I know that I've stuck true to the original pretext that got me here."