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MyLocalPitch’s latest Humans of Grassroots Sport series star is St Matthew’s Project founder Lee Dema:
The project started by pure chance really, all from a kick-about in Brockwell Park in Lambeth. I used to take my daughters to play football and one day some of the other kids from our block on St. Matthew’s Estate, Brixton asked if they could join us.
Once they had asked their parents if it was OK, they came along too and it just took off. A lot of the kids never really used to leave the block prior to that.
Then in 2004 I organised a tournament at Jubilee school, Tulse Hill, where I was a parent-governor. Just over 100 kids turned up and from that a local housing organisation asked me to run a summer holiday scheme as a volunteer. It was supposed to run for the 6 weeks but I ended up running it for four years.
A couple of years in I came to a pivotal moment for the project. The Fulham F.C Foundation were active in the local community and I knew them as I had initially used some of their coaches on the summer holiday scheme, so we organised a meeting with the housing association to chat through what the future might look like.
I was actually looking for a way to get out and hand it over but as we began discussing them taking on the project under their own name, meaning them taking all the kids under their control, all the equipment and changing the name I just suddenly thought ‘I can’t do this’.
So much time and effort had gone in to get us this far that I just couldn’t bring myself to hand it over to someone else, so I ended up saying to the housing association ‘you can either fund Fulham or me.’
The emotional pull was too strong I suppose. So I kept running things and funnily enough, through the project, I ended up being a scout for Fulham F.C for ten years. We also have a good working relationship with the Fulham Foundation today and sometimes get free tickets to games.
Eventually, though, it got so big I was struggling to juggle my family-work balance and that’s when the Football Foundation suggested I apply for a Community Grant and start running it as a paid, full-time job, which I’ve done now since September 2008.
Football has the power to bring communities together and you learn so much about yourself working with the kids. I can relate to them as I was one of them and see the exact same issues that me and my mates faced growing up in Tulse Hill and Brixton. Football acts as a great hook to get the kids in off the streets.
Kids being marginalised is a big issue in Lambeth. Gentrification continues to drive people out of the area and in an ideal world you wouldn’t need a project like ours to give kids a chance to play football. We organise structured coaching sessions and other activities as well as providing the opportunity to play in teams.
We still charge a £10 signing-on fee to cover league admin fees – the same as it was for our first ever league team in the 2005/06 season. I know some teams that charge up to £400 now and it’s unreasonable to ask for those figures.
We tell the kids that if they are good enough they will get picked up by clubs – there’s more than enough scouts out there nowadays, too many probably. We’ve even had one from Blackpool at our matches.
The clubs charging ridiculous fees promise the world to the kids and it just creates problems down the line if they don’t make it. They’re always happy to take a photo of a smiling 8 year-old signing for some club’s academy but no one’s ever there with a camera when they’re released.
One of the best feelings is when the kids come back to the project with their own children now, showing the life cycle around the community. It’s an honour they come to see you.
Measuring the impact isn’t always simple, but these moments make you think we might be doing something right. We aim to make a difference by helping young people go down a positive pathway in life and fulfil their potential.
To find out more about the St Matthews Project visit http://www.thesmp.net/
BY - Will Chrimes
8 March 2018