The Beautiful Game – Football The Fulham Way
Becca Willet, the Youth and Community Worker at St Alban’s Fulham discusses the football sessions run by the church, for the local young people in Fulham. Below, she details what lessons other churches can learn from more than five years’ of experience.
For more than five years, willing volunteers from St Alban’s Fulham set up and ran a football project. Every week, on a local park, in a council estate, we engaged with over 50 young men in our local community aged between 8–18 years old (and sometimes their Dads). Rain or shine, cold or hot, we pumped up a football, set up portable football goals and spent an hour playing football. It became a place of fitness, competitiveness, encouragement, and signposting!
These weekly games had a significant impact on both the young men that played with us and our church community. Many of the young people have been mentored and supported through challenging times in their life. Others have integrated into parts of our youth work leading into an increased attendance at our weekly youth club. We have the first-hand experience of the ability of sport to engage local un-churched young people in a powerful way.
These are some of the challenges and learning we found in running the football projects, and a little about how we’re using sports to engage with young people currently.
How to Start
After trying to attract people into our church hall for almost six months and with little success, our then youth worker decided to take a football out onto a park in the local estate every Sunday afternoon. It immediately engaged with young people. Many youth football clubs have membership fees and games that involve travel. We learnt that our young people, like many young people from disadvantaged communities, simply cannot access these clubs because of the cost, travel and the level of commitment required. What we found was that our football project offered them a fun, free, structured and casual game of football for all abilities.
One of the on-going challenges in London is the transient nature of people: many volunteers move on after 6-months or a year. We had some cracking volunteers who saw the group grow from a younger age (when they were smaller and squeaky-voiced) whom invested and committed to the vision. However, sadly as these volunteers moved on, and as we recruited new volunteers, there wasn’t the same-shared vision, or heart for the now, quite large, lads. Relationship building and trust is key to a small informal project like this, and the transient nature of volunteers was one of the biggest challenges to the project.
One of the upsides of the football project was that it was out, in the park and near our church. We were visible, it felt safe, and was a great advert for many of the other programs we have ran. The downside was, that we just never knew who would turn up or in what state they would be in. We have had a young person turn up carrying a knife, and a young person’s Dad under the influence of alcohol. These are some of the issues that arise in detached work – so ensure your volunteers clued up and ready to respond.
The Football attracted a certain group of friends from our local area, but now, a number of years down the line, many are 17-19-year-olds with part-time jobs on Sunday. Some activities work really well for a time until at some point in their life-cycle they come to a natural pause or end. It’s important to spot this and end it well. This was the case with our Sunday football project – they outgrew us!
At the same time, however, we also became involved in renovating and rejuvenating some of our local derelict parks. We now we have an excellent park with a 3G pitch and outdoor gym equipment which is great for the community and a tool for the church to use. There are always new opportunities to seek out and run with.
Professional football teams often offer community coaching. We’ve got amazing charities who run local football coaching academies, as well as multi-sport sessions, and tennis coaching etc. These organisations are keen to partner up with other organisations like the local church to enhance their engagement and make it more sustainable.
In our case, they offer excellent sports coaching once a week and we run a youth club down the road, which they advertise. This provides two positive activities a week for the young people. Also, many coaches really need support including more volunteers and staff to chat to kids on the sidelines. Here at St Alban’s, we work with them every week: we provide a youth worker, and they provide sports activities!
In the last year, we’ve also partnered with many other agencies providing accessible and incredible sporting opportunities such as Paddle Boarding and Rowing. Often these organisations don’t have the connections to the young people to enable them to invite them to their activities. We have a strong network of young people who can benefit from trying something new and engaging in regular exercise. We find working together is sustainable and better for the young people!
Our experience here at St Alban’s shows that creating a sporting activity for our local young people has been a significant way in which we have been able to reach out into the community, change lives and make our church a part of the local community. We are exploring new ways that we can expand what we do to reach more people and go deeper with the strong links we have already made with these kids. The diocese, as a part of Capital Vision 2020, also has many partners who can help you start and support this kind of sporting activity. For more information see the online or join the Sports and Physical Activity Network.