An Extraordinary Recovery Champion: Noreen Oliver RIP

I woke up yesterday morning to find a message via Linked In from Kendra Gray, Strategic Director at The BAC O’Connor Centre, about my good friend and inspirational figure Noreen Oliver MBE. Kendra’s message was accompanied by the following::

‘It is with deep sadness and heavy hearts that we share the news of the passing of our beloved Founder & Managing Director, Noreen Oliver MBE, Hon.DLit, who passed away on December 16, 2023, at the age of 63. Noreen was a passionate advocate for drug and alcohol policy reform, dedicating 25 years of her life to the relentless pursuit of positive change within the drug and alcohol community.

Noreen’s unwavering commitment to her cause was truly remarkable. She fearlessly challenged politicians, tirelessly pushing for reform and improvement in every corner possible. In 1998, she established the BAC with just two rooms in Burton-on-Trent and a mission to make a meaningful impact. Today, the BAC boasts over 70 beds providing detoxification, residential rehabilitation and recovery housing and operates community services nationwide, a testament to Noreen’s unwavering commitment.

In 2010, she expanded her reach by opening Langan’s Tea Room, a social enterprise providing employment opportunities for those in recovery. Additionally, she founded the Recovery Group UK (RGUK), an alliance uniting academics, rehabilitation service providers, and organisations dedicated to addressing drug and alcohol-related issues. Noreen was also a Director on the Centre for Social Justice and was as recently as November 2023 awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Staffordshire University.

While Noreen’s list of accolades is extensive, her most significant achievement lies in the countless lives she saved and the enduring impact she made. Noreen will be remembered as a kind and loving woman who selflessly embarked on a mission to make a difference, a mission she fulfilled thousands of times over. We are honoured to have been a part of her journey.

As we mourn the loss of this extraordinary individual, we also take this time to reflect on Noreen’s remarkable life. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family during this difficult time. At the BAC, we are committed to carrying on Noreen’s legacy, supporting individuals on their journey to recovery. However, it is undeniable that the BAC will never be the same without her. Noreen’s spirit will continue to guide us as we strive to make a difference, just as she did throughout her inspiring life. We mourn the loss of an inspirational leader and advocate.

A book of condolence will be in reception at BAC for anyone who wishes to sign it from Thursday 21st December and further details of Noreen’s funeral will be posted in due course.

If you could please respect Tony’s need for privacy at the current time and if you wish to send him a message please send it directly to BAC who will pass this on.

Rest in peace Noreen.’

Such beautiful words about a truly remarkable person.

I first met Noreen early in 2004. Simon Shepherd, Chief Executive of the Federation of Drug and Alcohol Professionals (FDAP), invited me to a FDAP Management Group meeting in the Houses of Parliament so that he could introduce me to some of the ‘movers and shakers’ in the field. At the time, my Wired In work in the community had primarily been conducted in Wales.

Noreen was the first person to whom I was introduced by Simon. She invited me to visit her at Burton Addiction Centre (BAC)—later to become The BAC O’Connor Centre—which she had set up, and conduct an evaluation of their structured day care programme. What a place! As I said at the time, recovery literally oozed out of the walls!! I couldn’t speak highly enough about the treatment programme and developing recovery community at BAC.

My visits to BAC O’Connor at this time led to a close friendship with Noreen and a deep mutual respect. It was ironic that we first met in the Houses of Parliament, as we both continued to challenge the government-led treatment system… Noreen far longer and much more effectively than me!

I continued to follow Noreen’s work and the continued development and expansion of BAC O’Connor after I moved to Australia in 2008. What she and her colleagues created was truly very special. I have fond memories of visiting Noreen in 2011 with Mark Gilman and meeting Kendra, I think for the first time.

Last year, I visited BAC O’Connor in Burton-on-Trent once again. It was such a special day… I’m now feeling quite emotional writing this. I met some old friends and was introduced to other people I had never met. Noreen and I talked and talked, and then headed off to Langan’s Tea Rooms, the social enterprise owned by the O’Connor Gateway Charitable Trust that Noreen had set up. We had an excellent lunch in this lovely place… and continued to talk and talk.

Noreen had arranged a dinner at a local pub which her husband Tony, brother Kevin, Kendra and four other members of staff attended. It was a truly special occasion. Noreen and Tony then took me back to their lovely home in a village near Nottingham. There, Noreen and I again talked and talked… and started to plot. More memories tomorrow.