‘I want to continue helping children’
Thirteen years ago a horrifying ordeal with a machete wielding attacker changed the course of Lisa Potts’ life. The former nursery school teacher sustained terrible injuries while shielding her pupils during a teddy bear’s picnic. It thrust her into the media spotlight and made her a national heroine. She talks to SANDIE SHIRLEY about fame and her ongoing work with young people
"I rubbed shoulders with celebrities and won 19 awards, including the George Medal for bravery. Determination to forgive my attacker and move on has ensured that the trauma of that terrible day in July 1996 has not overshadowed my life.
"I have had to embrace hardship, which has helped to develop empathy for children and parents alike. It has also made me intent on making the ongoing pages of my life turning points for myself as well as others.
"Without my relationship with God I would not have coped. The media attention was surreal. It began when I came out of hospital and it continued to tell my story every step of the way – from rehabilitation, the court case and the things I became involved with. I could either run away or face it. I did not want to court the press, but at the same time it could be used positively for the good things that came about. I have tried to be friendly and open over the last 13 years. I learnt to be me, despite the media attention, which was the most important thing.
"For a while I felt as if I had lost my identity and had become public property. It was mad – I was offered a cookery programme and I could not even cook! There have been challenges with the press concerning my personal life, but over the years there has been less interest and it has been easier to live a normal life without so many interviews and cameras.
"I had to meet the challenges of three operations and physiotherapy to regain the use of my hands. I was just 21 and I had to relearn everything from doing up shoelaces to fastening buttons. It took years of grit and resolve to overcome emotional trauma, a fractured skull and lacerations which nearly severed my arm.
"God prepared me for the attack on that summer’s day in the disadvantaged West Midlands’ suburb. I had worked at St Luke’s Church of England school nursery for 18 months, I had a growing faith and was at the peek of fitness through running and aerobics sessions,
"After gruelling surgery, I faced my six foot two assailant in court. Horrett Campbell is now indefinitely detained in a secure hospital. It was very frightening. I was one of the first to give evidence for an hour and I was cross-examined, but I had a sense of peace as I looked at him.
"I forgave him a long time ago – otherwise I would not be able to tell my story. I needed to forgive to move on. If you cannot forgive, you get entwined with bitterness and frustration, and my faith enabled me to ask God to help me. I am not angry and I do not get frustrated. God took me off the path I was on and put me on another one. I accepted it rather than running away. There were many sleepless nights, but God was my comfort and guide even though I felt I was on a rollercoaster for five years of my life.
"I have continued to be able to help youngsters – a vocation that began when I was a 14 year-old Sunday school teacher – as the growing media interest opened doors of opportunity. During a press interview, I mentioned that I wanted to go to Romania – a desire sparked after seeing a BBC television programme with Anneka Rice that turned a run-down orphanage into a place of love and hope. As a result, a church in Dudley offered me the chance to join the Caminul Felix Project in Oradea. Twenty houses were being built and financed by 20 different countries around the world. Each housed abandoned children who were lost and empty. They live with house parents in a secure, loving family environment that provides education and mentoring.
"The Caminul Felix Project – translated ‘happy home’ has a strong Christian ethos. The church mission from the UK raised £90,000 to house 20 children. To my surprise, when I unveiled the plaque at the opening, it was named after me. It was a fantastic experience; I hear from the home every year and write regularly.
"I was also involved with Oxfam’s Education Now Campaign in 1999 that compared worldwide education systems with those in Britain. I travelled to Vietnam with a team of journalists to highlight the plight of the country’s education, while visiting two different tribes. I loved the visit, which provided a broadcast for Radio Four and interviews with the Daily Mail.
"Having done a family counselling course, I set up a children’s charity in 2001 to bring hope, purpose and potential to youngsters aged seven to 11. To date, Believe to Achieve has helped 1,500 children and their families in Wolverhampton. It has been important to return to the Blakenhall and All Saints area, where the attack took place, to bring a new positive impact. I am passionate about Wolverhampton and proud to be from the area. The charity is not about me, although I am a trustee and involved with fund-raising and counselling, but about children believing in themselves.
"B2A works with pupils at five primary schools in the area to help reinforce self-esteem and family values through parenting courses, mentoring and creativity. Imaginative art, dance, drama, music, cheerleading, sport and summer trips to the coast, a local RAF base and fruit picking farms, bring a vibrant buzz to leisure activities. One-to-one counselling for bullying, peer pressure, truancy or relationship difficulties is removing the barriers to learning, while training for peer supporters is empowering youngsters to become role models.
"Head teachers say B2A is uniting the community, improving attendance and SATs results and, most importantly, creating a happy learning environment with well-motivated, enthusiastic pupils. I never thought it would still be going after eight years and I am committed to gaining fresh financial support to see it continue.
"Last September, I was recognised by Wolverhampton University for my work with children and families. It was an unexpected honour. I received my fellowship with a cap and gown at the town’s Grand Theatre, watched by my husband, family and friends.
"I am married to Dave – a policeman – and we have two children, Jude and Alfie. Meeting the milestones of their development has been challenging. Alfie’s first day at nursery brought back memories of the attack. When I went to pick him up and saw the other parents, I had flashbacks from that day when all the parents were arriving, not knowing what had happened. But he was fine and he loved it so much I had to rationalise everything.
"Since the incident I have written a children’s prayer book and Heroes for a Day, a book to highlight the bravery of others as well as the autobiography, Behind the Smile. I also tell my story in person to wide-reaching UK audiences.
"Public speaking began when I worked with Peugeot and their Woman of the Year campaign. I spoke at lots of different women’s events and later toured the UK with Care for the Family. Now I may speak for up to an hour at churches (www.lighthouse agency.co.uk), women’s groups and bigger conferences for teachers and police.
"I recently appeared in front of a large group of Samaritans and a counselling organisation. I have also covered an event for post-traumatic stress disorder. I enjoy speaking in terms of meeting lots of new people. Things happen in people’s lives and you can move on with the encouragement of an inspiring story."