Despite their reputation as money-grabbing, self-centred primadonnas, many Premier League footballers contribute their time and energy to charity work. It’s rare however to see a player actively involved with a small local project that genuinely makes a difference for vulnerable young people. Jermain Defoe’s work with E18ghteen deserves a great deal of respect.
The project helps young people who used to be in care to live independently in the community. As well as advice about housing, employment, benefits and training, it provides mentoring and personal support. It’s part of the work of the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation, funded by the club and whose mission is to reach out into the community and put something back.
What is particularly fascinating about Defoe’s involvement is that it’s no vanity project. Support for care leavers is desperately needed but it’s not sexy. Celebrities often attach themselves to fundraising for national charities or headline-grabbing events like Sport Relief. Once a year football backs the NSPCC’s Full Stop To Child Abuse campaign. Wearing a t-shirt during the warm-up may raise awareness temporarily but establishing a local project leaves a real legacy for the individuals concerned even if it seldom reaches the papers.
This is what I do for a living. Children and young people in care are amongst the most vulnerable in our society. All experience disruption and poor care at some point in their childhood, some much worse. Many walk a rocky road through the care system. For these young people, adulthood comes very suddenly. At 18 they leave care and whilst they are entitled to ongoing support and advice, because of severe local authority budgets cuts, the actual provision varies from the patchy to the virtually non-existent.
Many find themselves in trouble with the law. In November the chair of the Youth Justice Select Committee Sir Alan Beith highlighted the lack of services for young people: “We were shocked by evidence we heard that vulnerable children across the UK are effectively being abandoned by children’s and social services.”
Before Christmas I attended the launch of the Care Leavers’ Charter , an initiative begun by care leavers themselves and taken up by the Department For Education to ensure services are in place. It’s sobering to hear young people’s stories of rejection and isolation. We wouldn’t kick out our own children at 18 but the state often sees fit to do so. The speakers asked for very little. This was not about material goods or income, rather, they wanted security and safety, respect and guidance. Someone to turn to, someone to be there for them when times got tough.
Defoe is personally involved in E18ghteen, offering mentoring to young people as well as being the public figurehead. After the death of his brother in a fight, he approached the Foundation. Speaking in the Guardian last year, Defoe explained: “There were quite a few moments that made me think I need to put something back in the community. Watching the news and seeing all the gun crime in London. Young kids were dying, getting stabbed outside schools. Then what happened to my brother Gavin was a big thing for me. And one of my cousins was actually in care but is now in prison. I thought I’d love to do something to try and help the kids and try and stop this from happening.”
I work for a charity. We say – come back to us if you want to and whenever you want to. That simple gesture is the first step. No barriers or eligibility thresholds. Talk and we’ll help if we can. You can have all the resources you want but there is no substitute for being there. E18ghteen provides mentors to reach out and enable young people’s full potential to emerge. It’s a model piece of community work. Defoe does his best work in the area but this piece of thinking outside the box has been a huge success.
Photo from the official site. If you want to see what JD’s up to at the moment, here’s his video diary in the England camp: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HinKMHMfxD0&feature=youtu.be updated daily.
If you are interested in these issues, Conscience, a film by a care leaver, carries a simple and powerful message.