Alison worked for the Post Office six years ago. It was fine, but the rewards were purely financial. Through voluntary work she had with a local football club in Birmingham with the Positive Futures programme, she wanted more out of life, wanted to give back.
In 2006, she applied for and secured a one-year post running a football project in the Glebe Farm area. It proved hugely successful. A further two years were funded by the Birmingham Children’s Fund. She then secured her own funding and the FITCAP project came under the StreetGames umbrella. So, what appealed to her about community sport?
“That’s the million dollar question,” said Alison. “I was in a job where I felt had more to offer but not in that organisation. I wanted to do more so I set up a girls’ football club. I was trying to give the kids options to do stuff instead of everyone being negative about youth. After the first year, if I had had to do the job for nothing I would have done because the job satisfaction job was so high.”
“The biggest challenge was convincing local people that you are here to stay even if the money runs out. That you will keep doing it. The reason is that the local community had been let down so many times in the past with people disappearing once the money ran out. In terms of obstacles, the hardest one to surmount has been finding reasonably-priced indoor facilities so that the sessions can carry on during the winter. And transport to take the young people to the inter-neighbourhood competitions we run.”
One of Alison’s most endearing qualities is her utter honesty. It has meant that those who work for her trust her implicitly and know that everything is being done for the greater good. She has continued to run FITCAP in spite of personal worries. Rather than tell the world her own troubles, she refers to the difficulties involved in establishing FITCAP.
She added: “Getting people qualifications was vital. Up-skilling local people to be part of the project means you have a never-ending supply of young people to sustain the project. We made mistakes giving some people too much responsibility – not in bad way but because we didn’t realize which ones would have limitations in terms of what they could offer. So if I did it all over again I would choose the staff a little bit more carefully at limitations to get the best out of them.
“The community has changed a lot because of the project. There are a lot more positive role models out there now. I felt like I was pretty much a lone worker fighting against the drug dealers and the gang-affiliated cliques before, but now the young people have a lot more of their peers to look up to.
“I am proud of lots of the young people. Each person’s journey is slightly different. For instance, we are losing one of our brilliant coaches who came to us when he was 13 and very shy. He is now 19 going off to America to work as a football coach. His mum came up to me and said: ‘I should thank you but my son is now leaving home because of the success he has made!’
“There are lots of others who are determined to avoid the negative stuff going on at home including falling into the same trap as parents did, such as being unemployed. And then there’s a young mum with four young children who has been on a very up and down journey.
“What’s lovely is when they keep in touch, like one lad, now 19 and a Level 2 football coach, who I hadn’t seen for 12 months, came in yesterday, wrapped his arms around me, told me he had missed me and said he is coming back to do more volunteering with us. That makes it really worthwhile.”
Alison's hard work, persistance and success against the odds was formally recognised by StreetGames when she was named joint-winner (with Ken Dullaway) of the Outstanding Contribution to Doorstep Sport award at the inaugural StreetGames awards in March 2012.
Alison O'Connell MBE