Encouraging and empowering local people

I can’t believe how much is going on at Manchester Communication Academy.

This afternoon I’m chatting with Jane Ellis who has been with the school’s community department for the last four years.

“I’d worked as a dental nurse for 20 years and was looking for a career change when I applied to work at the school when it first opened in 2010. Back then there were just three staff working on the community programme.”

Now Jane is one of a team of 11 whose job it is to support and outreach in to the school’s wider community.

They hire the school’s facilities to local sports and community groups, including a visually-impaired football team and the local scout group. They put on Adult Education courses where English and maths are in high demand.

There’s a ‘Once Upon A Time’ project for older people where you can drop in for a chat and a look back at local history. Jane’s team even includes a resident archaeologist.

“Why does a school like yours get so involved with its community?” I ask.

“As you know, this area is near the top of all the deprivation statistics,” says Jane. “And there are few other resources in this area.”

“It’s as if you’re a community centre within a school,” I suggest.

“We see our job as removing the barriers that people might have to make changes in their lifestyle,” she says. “That way we can help to improve those statistics.”

“It must be very different from being a dental nurse?” I suggest.

“It’s very rewarding. When you see someone come to, say, one of the classes for the first time, they might be quiet and nervous and think they’re not capable. But then you witness a real change.

“One lady, I remember, said the hardest thing was coming though the doors – it can be daunting for some people to just walk in to the building – but now she volunteers for us and has even got back into employment.”

Jane is currently setting up a ‘time bank’ for the area where local people can share their skills, offering to do small jobs for others.

“It could be doing some shopping for an older person,” she says, “or just sitting, having a conversation. There are a million opportunities.”

I ask why people might want to get involved. “Time banking can be a great stepping stone,” Jane explains. “Some people will do it to get volunteering experience, it will give them the edge when applying for jobs. For others it’ll be a chance to build their confidence.

“And anyone will be able to join without having to give back,” she explains, “no one will be in ‘time debt’.”

Jane is one of the newest members of Forever Manchester’s Local Reference Group, overseeing the allocation of funding from the Fourteen programme. “I got to know the Forever Manchester team when I applied for funding for the Frank Cohen alcohol support centre,” she says.

“What Forever Manchester is doing is amazing. They’re bringing people together, like we’re trying to do, and making people aware of what help and support is out there.”

By spending just a short time with Jane I can tell she is a real ‘people person’. She loves to be able to help and outside of her busy job with the Academy she still finds time to support her local food bank.

To get involved with Jane’s time bank, or any of the other activities on offer, give her a call on 0161 202 0161

“We’re teaching these kids a way of life.”

Continued from “The best feeling ever.”

We’re at Collyhurst and Moston boxing gym and I’m in the middle of interviewing 15-year-old boxer, Ellie O’Brien. She’s been telling me about winning her first boxing bout.

“What do you think this place does for local young people?” I ask.

“It keeps you off the street,” Ellie says, emphatically. “You’re here making something with your life rather than out doing nothing. You’re making your future aren’t you?”

“And how does affect other parts of your life?”

“It’s made me a different person. I feel more committed. You can’t only be a boxer in the ring, you’ve got to be a boxer outside the gym as well. You’ve got to be eating right, sleeping right. On the nights I’m not here I run for six miles. You’ve got to have the right attitude.”

Ellie’s dad is here to pick up her brother. “It’s really improved her confidence,” Lee says. “She’s a totally different person. It’s all she talks about.”

“So this club has a big impact?”

“Massive. Not just on Ellie but on the whole community. It’s so important what Tommy, Pat and the other trainers do for them. If it wasn’t for this, all these kids would be messing about on the street with the rest of them. It keeps them on the straight and narrow.

“Ellie’s disciplined now. She goes home after her training and gets on with her school work. It’s massively changed her life.”

The older kids are warming up now, shadow boxing, hitting punch bags. I catch up with Tommy again.

“It’s very impressive,” I tell him. “It’s not the most glamorous place but what you are doing is really important.”

“These kids need this place,” he says, passionately. “When I was a kid, I needed this place. Let me show you what we’re doing in here.”

Tommy leads me through the weaving boxers. “Don’t be hitting Len now,” he says to no one in particular. A door on the other side of the gym leads to what looks as if it was once a storeroom. Now laptops sit on a couple of tables.

“I’ve made this into a classroom,” says Tommy. “You know, there are some kids who won’t go to school but they will come here. They love it, they feel at home here. They might never be boxers but we can teach them other skills too.

“These kids feel part of something and we can help build their confidence from within. I know, as a kid, boxing saved me.”

“You’re creating a safe place,” I say. “And that’s very important.”

“Brian’s favourite quote was, ‘We don’t teach kids boxing, we teach them a way of life’. And that’s what we’re still doing. Yes, we’re boxers, but we’re respectful people and we help each other.”

“It’s really inspiring,” I say. “And what about your involvement with Forever Manchester and the Fourteen programme? How has that worked?”

“It’s been really useful not only with the funding we’ve had but also with making connections. Off the LRG (the Local Reference Group) we’ve done quite a lot of work with MaD Theatre and with FC United. They’ve all been great, we’ve a really good group.

“We’ve had some funding for video equipment and we’ve made a little video with MaD that the police are using now, so that’s been good.

“Yes, first and foremost we’re a boxing club but lots of kids want to do others things within the safety of the club, and the Fourteen programme has allowed us to do that.”

A new book about the boxing club’s 100-year history will be published later this year. We’ll be reporting on it here.

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“The best feeling ever.”

“Left hand…right hand,” encourages Ellie. “Now shadow box… switch… and stretch.”

While the 15-year-old is warming up the youngsters, Tommy Mcdonagh shows me a photo on the boxing gym wall. “This was taken five years ago when we took over. That’s Lyndon Arthur, he’s professional now, unbeaten in four fights. That’s Zelfa Barrett, unbeaten in 15.”

He shouts across the training room: “Everyone get some gloves on!”

And then, to me: “We try and get them as young as possible and bring them on.

“I joined this club when I was just eight, like a lot of these,” he says. “I had my first fight at 11. I boxed for England as a schoolboy, and then as a youth and was National Champion two or three times, 66 amateur fights altogether.

“I turned pro at 18 and had 40 professional fights. I was WBU Champion, and competed for English, Commonwealth and World titles.”

“All from this club?” I ask, looking round.

Collyhurst and Moston Lads Club ABC is 100 years old this year. For much of its fascinating history it was run by Brian Hughes MBE – the ‘Godfather of Manchester Boxing’ – who was coach and mentor to dozens of local young boxers including Tommy and his partner, Pat Barrett.

Tommy ties the laces on one of the lad’s gloves. “In 2010, when I was retiring from boxing, Brian handed the club over to Pat and me and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

He’s back with the youngsters now, “Four punches: one… two… three.. four. And back”.  I borrow Ellie for a little interview.

“My little brother started coming down,” she points out one of the junior boxers, “so I’d come and use the gym to get fit. When I saw him training I thought I’d give it a go.”

“It looks like you’re the only girl here. How do you feel about that?” I ask.

“It doesn’t bother me. I get on with all the lads. It’s like we’re a big family.”

“What was it like getting in the ring for the first time?”

“I was nervous, but once I was in there doing it, I enjoyed it. I had a good feeling about myself.”

I know nothing about boxing and admit it to Ellie. “But is it equal, when you are sparring with the boys?”

“We’re both the same. We don’t go out to hurt each other.”

Ellie tells me she has now had five ‘skills’ – a non-competitive exhibition of what she can do – and one proper fight at Ashton Masonic Hall.

“Did you win?” I ask. Ellie smiles modestly. “Congratulations.”

“I did what I had to do and all the training paid off. When they announce your name as the winner, it’s the best feeling ever.”

Continued in “We’re teaching these kids a way of life.”

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