Member Spotlight: St Matthew’s Project, Brixton

In our first Member Spotlight, we speak to Lee Dema from St. Matthew’s Project in Brixton who has developed the organisation from a ‘kick-around in Brockwell Park’ to a registered charity. October 10th 2017 marks World Mental Health Day which is an issue that St. Matthew’s Project has been focusing on this year, mixing football and mental health workshops to great success, with support from London Youth’s Development Grant.

Q: Which programmes are you involved in with London Youth?

A: We’re massively involved with London Youth just now. Currently we’re working with the Sports Development team, looking at how we can engage more girls in football. This year we received funding from London Youth’s Development Grant and we used this to run a programme focusing on mental health. We were one of the founding members of the Tackling Youth Violence Network which we are still heavily involved with.

Q: How many young people do you work with each week?

A: Outside of summer over 200 young people across all projects, from 3 to 25 years old, 80% of the young people are boys.

Q: How did you get into youth work?

A: I lived on St Matthew’s Estate in Brixton and took my two daughters to have a kick-around in Brockwell Park, very close by. A few kids came over and asked to join in and I said yes. We continued playing football in the park and in 2004 I helped arrange a football tournament at my daughters’ primary school, with over 100 children participating. Not long after this I was approached by a local housing association and asked to run a football scheme over the summer, so took this opportunity up.  In 2005 I received my first ever small grant from the Football Foundation to run a football team, St Matthew’s FC as a volunteer. In 2008 I was given a community grant from Football Foundation to become a full-time worker, undertaking further qualifications and bringing together a steering group. Not long after that I came into contact with London Youth through my youth work qualifications. In 2011 St Matthew’s Project became a registered charity.

Q: How does London Youth inspire and motivate you?

A: I have a lot of time for London Youth as it genuinely helps small grassroots groups and it’s nice to have familiar faces around. Through London Youth I came to the realisation (on the Level 2 Youth Work qualification training) that St Matthew’s is much more than a football team and that the work I was doing was actually youth work. From this I started developing St Matthew’s Project, which is beyond St Matthew’s FC, and it serves a number of different purposes in the community: courses and training, parent and toddler group, boxing and table tennis and more.

Q: What is best about doing what you do?

A: Working with young people where I grew up. It is like going back in time – the same issues that affected me, the same drivers are there. Kids living on estates face similar issues like family breakdown, poverty and getting involved in crime.

Q: What is worst about doing what you do?

A: Monitoring and evaluation – it is a huge drain on time and resources. It can often be a tick-box exercise for funders and that leads to lots of exaggerated claims made, with a lack of checks on what people are saying. Funders are often told what they want to hear from bigger organisations. It seems the larger you are the more credible you are. This can be very frustrating.

Q: What’s been most exciting this year?

A: The Development Grant project that we ran on mental health: kids really took to the mental health workshops, with 12 to 15 in each session. A lot of challenging young people were engaged and have even asked about it continuing now. We’re not psychologists or social workers but issues aren’t being addressed. The counsellors on the project were very good, not fazed by the content young people were sharing. It worked so well because of the setting – in Brockwell Park in summer with good weather. Food was put on and there was a really good atmosphere. There were five sessions and the young people spoke about a range of issues: one spoke about his father and not wanting to speak with him anymore and another topic that came up was pornography. There was a real openness around personal issues, almost like group therapy. The last session went so well the group ran over by over 30 minutes – not something that we expected at the beginning.

Q: What’s your best piece of advice you’d offer to young Londoners?

A: Don’t ever think you’re rubbish – a lot of kids think they’re rubbish – I used to think like that. A big cause of violence is a lack of self-worth. If you have self-belief you won’t go down that road, you don’t need to.

Q: What do you do for fun? Outside of St Matthew’s Project?

A: I don’t have many vices any more – I love spending time with my family. It is hard to switch-off – you need to do it wholeheartedly. It is beyond a 35 hour week – there wouldn’t be a St Matthew’s Project if so.

Q: Anything else?

A: It is the trust we have with young people – they know we are genuine, we are here for them. I think we need to re-define what ‘on the ground’ means and need to reach out. It’s massively important that funders and bigger groups go and see what local groups do.

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