A HARLOW project working with young people to combat violent crime could close by April if it doesn’t get more funding.
Changing Lives in Harlow was created by former teacher David Simmons, and Ben Doyle, who is experienced in delivering sporting expertise within the community. Both run independent businesses; David Simmons runs Flick Trick Sports and Ben Doyle runs S K Sports whilst they also operate the project after school at Mark Hall Academy.
Changing Lives is an early intervention and prevention project focused on making children aware of the dangers that gangs, violence and drugs could pose. They use sports to motivate children, inter-spliced with counselling and have had huge success, but they are now facing a funding crisis.
David was inspired to start the venture whilst working as a teacher in North London, when a six-year-child threatened him with a knife. He said: “The child was swinging and waving the kitchen knife saying ‘he wanted to kill me’; there was no personal vendetta against me I knew this child needed help.”
His passion for teaching and his drive to combat gang problems with young children inspired him, along with Ben, to launch Changing Lives in Harlow.
But they face not only funding problems but also negative attitudes from other schools in the area. Although being based in Mark Hall Academy, David doesn’t believe that schools are doing enough in terms of funding and providing support: “The hard thing is how many barriers there are when it comes to receiving funding, there has to be a line between money and helping young people. It’s frustrating we can’t help as much as we’d like.
“We actually wanted to go to other schools but they didn’t want to be associated with us, as they’d be acknowledging a problem and that could affect their reputation or Ofsted rating.”
The mission statement on the project’s website says: ‘Our objective is to create social, sporting and work experiences that will install confidence and motivation for children providing them with opportunities and pathways towards a positive future.’
And they are determined to create a more positive future. Ben said “We would like this model (Changing Lives in Harlow) to be set up in areas all over the country.”
This project has made impressive developments despite its lack of funding. Harlow is a town with a particular gang problem and violence and drug problems will only increase without intervention.
According to the Police.uk website, in a crime survey conducted between December 2018 and November 2019, Harlow North, West and Central had a total of 311 reported drugs incidents. The statistics for possession of a weapon between the three areas was 63 reported cases. However, the figures for reported violent and sexual offences is astronomical with 3261 reported cases in the three areas.
When compared to other areas in Essex, the drug rate for Harlow is huge, far exceeding the county average as shown by this graph:
As a project focused on helping young people to stay away from gangs and crime, Changing Lives gets children, aged four to 16, interested sports, music and drama. The sessions consist of two hours of sporting activities or music/drama workshops, and this is then followed by a one-hour mentoring and behavioural workshop provided by Essex Police and the NHS. These sessions occur twice a week.
For those aged between 17 and 24, Changing Lives has adopted Migrants United Football Club – and this is now known as Changing Lives FC. Funded by the Active Essex Foundation, the footballers train every week and are entering the Harlow District League this year or 2021.
A volunteer for Changing Lives in Harlow (CLIH) and also a Mark Hall Academy Learning Mentor, Robert Green, talked about how important CLIH’s work is. He said “Schools could be doing 100 per cent more when it comes to intervention. It’s rough for kids, we’re dealing with County Drug Lines and one-parent families for example.”
When asked about the risk of young people actually being involved with drug crime, Robert said: “Kids will pursue a social hierarchy, this means that they will do drugs and be a part of knife crime. The youngest drug seller in Harlow is only eight years old and he’s managed by his 13-year-old sister.”
Robert had nothing but praise for CLIH, saying “There is a 100 per cent visible improvement. One of the lads we’re helping had an extremely negative attendance, I thought he was a new student, now after the intervention of CLIH, his attendance has gone up to 92 per cent. We should have a Ben and David in every school.”
Despite the significant role that CLIH has in Harlow, they’re funding is significantly low. Whilst they had received funding from Harlow Council and the PFCC, Police Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex, in the past, the money given was finite and unsustainable.
Whilst organisations like the British Army have offered to run free workshops for the children in order to teach them valuable life lessons and establish a possible future career path. In the long run, they cannot continue to be free service.
This is a shocking outcome as they cater for children who are most at risk of gang and drug problems. Some families may not have the financial ability to pay for vital services such as Changing Lives.
David said “We have asked the council if their spending is mis-spent. We would like to set up in the town centre and replace the dilapidated shops – we want to get our foot in the centre of the problem.”
On the future of Changing Lives in Harlow, David said “We want this project to go nationwide, we need to educate young people on knife crime.”
The project welcomes volunteers and funding. To find out more go to the website: https://www.changinglivesinharlow.com/volunteer-index-impact