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How Nicole Ryan is powering change after tragedy
Nicole Ryan, the powerhouse behind Alex's Adventure, explains how the tragic loss of her brother set her on an unexpected path. In conversation with Jane Haynes
“My brother didn’t save four people – he saved five, because he put me on a path that I was always too afraid to explore.”
Fear is not something you would associate with Nicole Ryan. Indeed, one of her many striking qualities – alongside her eloquence and compassion – is her strength.
Nicole is the powerhouse behind Alex’s Adventure, a programme that educates young people on substance misuse.
It’s perhaps an unexpected path for one who qualified as a marine and plant engineer, who had ‘planned her life by the book’.
But one night in January, three years ago, Nicole’s world turned upside-down with the tragic loss of her younger brother Alex, 18.
Nicole was at sea, on her way home from Cherbourg, when she received a call informing her that Alex, who had been at a house party in Cork City, had been rushed to hospital. He had consumed a large dose of the synthetic drug ‘Nbomb’, believing it to be a far less potent substance.
Tragically, Alex never regained consciousness, and he passed away four days later. His organs were donated, offering a precious second chance at life to four people. Nicole, however, was left wondering how life went on after Alex.
“My brother didn’t save four people – he saved five, because he put me on a path that I was always too afraid to explore” - Nicole Ryan
At a time of such uncertainty, of one thing she was sure: Alex’s death was needless.
“It didn’t have to happen this way. And you always hear these stories, but nothing ever gets done,” Nicole reflects.
“Afterwards it’s a tragedy, and everybody moves on – until another tragedy happens, and again, everybody moves on. But nothing changes.”
Reflecting on her own school years, Nicole realised that the traditional approach to educating young people about drugs and alcohol was lacking.
“We were taught that drugs are bad; if you take drugs, you die. It was imminent death,” she says.
“And I thought, well, nothing has changed since. We’re still telling young people that if they take drugs, they’re going to die – that’s not the reality.
“It actually, in turn, pushes young people into trying drugs, because they see the dynamic of people taking drugs and say, ‘Well, they didn’t die, so maybe I won’t die’.
“I’ll never deny that it was Alex’s choice, but he was so naïve, so uneducated.”
Nicole has always considered herself as the storyteller, and Alex as the story; and from tragedy, she wanted positive change to blossom in Alex’s memory. So, she took it upon herself to address the gap in substance education. She devised a workshop for secondary school students around synthetic drugs, and the seeds of Alex’s Adventure were sown.
While nervous about presenting her first workshop, the experience was a revelation for all involved.
“I came in and stood in front of 50-odd young boys,” Nicole recalls.
“It was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop. At the end, two or three of them were even crying. I didn’t think it would be so powerful – I was blown away.”
After a year-and-a-half of presenting the one-off workshop to secondary students all over Ireland, Nicole came to a realisation: if she was to cover everything the students were asking for, she was going to have to expand her workshop into a programme. It was then that Alex’s Adventure was fully born.
Determined to make Alex’s Adventure as comprehensive as possible, Nicole chose to return to education.
“For me, qualifications are important – I always want to know what I’m doing,” she explains.
“At the time, UCC Adult Continuing Education had just launched the Substance Misuse and Addiction Studies course. I thought, this is perfect – this is what I need to understand how addiction works, how substances work.”
Life got that bit more hectic for Nicole when, after participating in the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Academy, she was accepted onto UCC’s business incubation programme, IGNITE.
She describes the IGNITE experience as ‘phenomenal’: “I’m learning a huge deal of the business side of things.
“You can have the best idea in the world, but to implement it and figure out how you can make it grow – those are the kind of practicalities of that programme.”
IGNITE has played a role in the development of Nicole’s entrepreneurial skillset as well as Alex’s Adventure. This month marks the roll-out of the pilot four-week school programme, and Nicole herself is training the teachers:
“We’re giving the schools every single material: all the lesson plans, the props, the games – everything they need to deliver the workshop, as well as the ongoing supports.
“The next thing to do, is to roll it out in a few schools next September and gain investors – people who are looking to help, to watch this grow. The potential with this is massive – you can take it abroad, you can change the language.”
Nicole’s ultimate goal is to build a franchise. With the focus currently on the Junior Certificate cycle, she is planning to expand the programme to cater for Leaving Certificate and third level.
Last year’s Humanitarian of the Year for Munster, Nicole has proven that she has not only the talent and dedication to see her goal realised, but she has a unique driving force propelling her forward: Alex, and the power of his legacy.
“What we will forever go through is something that doesn’t need to happen to other families,” she explains.
“There are other children out there who are just as naïve as my brother, who think we’re invincible and nothing can ever happen to us. It can happen to anybody so easily.
“The motivation is to help other families and keep Alex’s memory alive.”