Story added: 26th January 2021

"The programme is changing people’s lives"

This is likely to be the first time you’ve heard about the Foundation’s Onside programme.

It doesn’t have a webpage, flyers, or posters, and rarely features on the charity’s busy social media channels.

At any one time only a small number of families are enrolled in the programme – which, when judged by participant numbers alone, makes it the smallest of all the Foundation’s 47 programmes.

There are reasons why the programme flies beneath the radar, of course.

All the participants are referred directly to the Foundation from Norfolk County Council’s Children Services and Early Intervention departments.

This referral process, coupled with the importance of protecting the privacy of its participants, explains why the programme doesn’t make the public ‘splash’ its Foundation counterparts do.

But in its own quiet way, the programme is changing people’s lives.

“The programme was born out of the Future Canaries programme, which we ran in partnership with Norfolk County Council until 2015,” explains Stevie Bramble, the Foundation’s Curriculum Manager.

He continues: “The programme focussed on improving family relationships alongside attitude, attainment and attendance at schools. The children all had a range of complex needs and challenges, ranging from attendance issues to violence.

“When a new pot of funding became available thanks to the Premier League Charitable Fund in 2019, the programme was born again under its new name.”

The scheme was developed in partnership with Norfolk County Council’s Early Intervention Team.

At its core, and as the name of the programme suggests, the aim is to keep the young participants ‘onside’; trying to break the cycle of violent youth crime and exclusions and to help steer them back into mainstream education before they reach their teenage years.

Luke Sweeney

Luke Sweeney: CSF’s Onside Officer

Now in the second year of its delivery, the programme is fronted by the charity’s Onside Officer Luke Sweeney.

“I work with around fifteen families a year.

“Typically, the young people are not in mainstream education, or have been excluded from school. The families are often subject to a family support plan implemented by the Early Intervention Team.”

For an hour a week, each participant and their family spends time with Luke at The Nest, the Foundation’s new state-of-the-art community hub in north Norwich.

The one-to-one nature of the programme means the content of the session can be tailored to the family.

“Sustaining focus and interest for young people with behavioural problems can be very tricky, so finding new and innovative ways to keep the young person engaged is vital.

“The flexible nature of the course enables me to take the young person’s hobbies and interests into account. If the participant is into boxing, we’ll incorporate a lot of boxing. If they’re into football and Norwich City Football Club, the curriculum will be geared towards that.”

While some of the content focusses on issues such as the dangers of gangs, drugs and alcohol, many of the activities are about teamwork, communication and family cohesion.

“One of the games we play is Blindfolded Foot Golf, where the blindfolded participant’s family and siblings must use teamwork to guide them around the course.

“It’s all about building strong bonds, learning new skills, but most of all, having fun family time together.”

Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced the Foundation to change how the programme is delivered. In-person sessions have been postponed, with delivery switching online.

Luke hosts weekly online fitness lessons, family games and workshops, maintaining the strong one-to-one bond.

“The lockdowns have brought challenges to us all, but our families are particularly vulnerable.  My catch-ups aim to not only tackle boredom but break up the potential for toxic environments forming.”

As a surprise, the Foundation supplied each family with a ‘lockdown’ package of footballs, cones and other sporting equipment.

“Everyone was so grateful; they were very well received and have been used a lot to help cope with lockdown. Some of our families would not have been able to afford these items, or had any access to them, so it was really special to be able to drop the equipment off.”

Out of lockdown periods, The Nest is the home venue for the programme.

“It’s a really friendly and welcoming facility. With the surrounding trees and nature, it’s a peaceful environment. We’ve been utilising the new 3G pitch, which gives us a lot of space for the sessions.”

Once the new Challenge Woods outdoor playground and the main Hub building opens later this year (which will include new I.T. suites and classrooms), Luke will be using even more of the site’s impressive facilities.

He hopes that the young people will progress and develop enough to be able to join other mainstream Foundation programmes, such as Premier League Kicks.

Despite its challenging nature, the thrill for Luke is when a session comes together.

“There is no better feeling than when I finish a session with a family, and you can feel the glow of positivity coming from both the child and their parents.

“Hearing the words that they ‘cannot wait to return next week’ is a truly humbling experience. Job satisfaction at its best.”

Stevie Bramble concludes:

“I think the programme shows why the Foundation is so much more than its ‘football programmes and soccer schools’ stereotype. The impact the programme is having on these individual families is massive. We are changing lives.”

"There is no better feeling than when I finish a session with a family, and you can feel the glow of positivity coming from both the child and their parents."

Luke Sweeney

Onside Officer

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