Director of football David Holdsworth headed up a United delegation on a visit to the innovative The Rock project, right at the heart of Currock in Carlisle, last week where the group was given a real insight into what is a vital community asset.
First team squad members Josh Dixon, Kelvin Etuhu and Keighran Kerr delivered a range of Errea kit as early Christmas presents for the youngsters who attend the sessions, including tracksuits, caps and kits which will be used by the group leaders as rewards for good behaviour in the coming weeks.
David Holdsworth said: “Over the course of the past couple of months I’ve been speaking to our club chaplain Alun Jones about The Rock project, and it’s been a real eye-opener for me to learn about the important work that is being done in one of the more challenging areas of this city.
“It very quickly became clear to me that, as a club, we were in a position to help. We’ll support Alun and the staff who help the children and young adults who go down there because we feel we’ve got as much of a responsibility as anyone else in this area to do what we can to make a difference.
“It was fantastic for us to go into Currock to see how they work, and we want to do what we can to try to help these kids to get off the streets and find another way forward. The long-term goal for the project is to make these young people see that they can change their lifestyle, and if they achieve that it will, of course, help them to then progress positively in their everyday life.
“As a club we’ll do whatever we can to help Alun, Fiona [Sheridan – project leader] and the rest of the staff there. As part of our first visit we’ve taken some gifts that they can offer as rewards for good behaviour, and we’ll be taking the players down at some point over the Christmas period to meet everybody. Hopefully that will help to put a smile on some faces.
“A lot of the things we spoke to Alun and Fiona about helping with and getting involved with will be incentivised. That should give good reasons for everybody to behave and to be respectful to the staff and the facilities they have down there.
“Some of the stuff Fiona talked to us about in regard to what these children are going through and experiencing was incredible, so it’s about doing the right things to get them to realise that there are people out there who want to help. Hopefully the incentives we’ve offered will make a difference.
“We’ve asked Fiona and the staff to set up a reward scheme, and we’ll hopefully see some of the best-behaved children at our home game against Grimsby in a couple of weeks time.”
Explaining the project in more detail, Fiona said: “We have around 300 kids a week here who are aged between 7 and 18. We take about 30 per session, which is quite a tight squeeze in the small space we have, but the boys are always outside playing football.
“We have a coach on a Monday who comes in to teach football for us, but we also do crafts, baking, cooking and other life skill activities.
“We don’t charge the children to come, and we try to take them away for day trips and little holidays as well. We have a lot of families that haven’t got anything, and who often struggle to even provide food, so we try to do as much as we can with them.
“We’re funded this year by Children in Need and the County Council, and we’ve just applied for further funding. It costs around £55,000 a year to run this site, and we’ve just taken over the project at Petteril Bank where there are also severe and worrying poverty levels. That will cost another £25,000 a year.
“We’ve just got funding for a new building here at The Rock, so we’re going to knock the old one down. We can only start building once we’ve got the full amount raised, so we’re hoping that will be within the next 12 to18 months. A lot of local businesses have adopted us as their charity of the year, and that’s really helping.”
And on some of the issues faced in the area, she told us: “As an example, the county lines drug gangs are starting to come up here, and they’ll go into a house where an elderly or vulnerable person is living and take over and use that as a base.
“Once they’ve done that, they get local kids on bikes to act as drug couriers, and once kids get involved in that it’s very hard for them to get it back on track. It’s very difficult for the police to find these houses and, once they do, they just move to another one.”
Club chaplain Alun Jones, who is also vicar at the local church St Herbert’s, as well as being chair of the trustees at The Rock, said: “This parish is the second worst out of the 166 in Cumbria for hate crime and violence against the person.
“We had the Commissioner of Carlisle, the Bishop of Cumbria and the Home Secretary here last week, and an hour after we left there was an armed robbery at the local shop.
“It’s a challenging task for us as we try to give these young people some hope, but Fiona runs everything and does an amazing job.
“The main attraction here is the football pitch, and the kids are on there whatever the weather. I think the context is the most important thing in terms of the kind of children Fiona and the other staff are dealing with. This area has high crime levels, with lots of youth disorder and anti-social behaviour.
“They are all just young kids who need some aspirations and dreams, and a bit of hope to go with them. They really are just like any other child anywhere, they just need to be shown that there’s a way.
“A lot of our boys have that dream of playing for Carlisle United, and it’s amazing how that can give kids something to aspire to. It gives them something to look at where they might be able to get away from poverty or abuse, or just the endless cycle of living on benefits.
“We’re in an area with gangs – it’s a real gang culture – and the kids here tend not to go into the city centre much because their parents can’t drive them in or pick them up. A lot of our kids have behavioural issues which can turn them towards risky behaviour with drugs or alcohol.
“It’s amazing how many of our young people don’t have a father figure to look up to, and that’s where we feel getting involved with the club can help them. Some of them have barely got a mother influence either, but we feel the players could come in and just chat or play football with them. If that helps to steer them away from risky behaviour and gives them someone new to look up to then that will be fantastic.”
A huge thank you goes to Errea – particularly Fabrizio Taddei and Michael Wilson – who supplied a wide range of kit and equipment, including balls, bibs, training tops and leisure wear to help make our initial visit a success.