Something is stirring in the Queen’s Park neighbourhood of Bedford. Diverse, multi-ethnic communities known for leading parallel, almost separate, lives are being brought together through their children at the instigation of a quite remarkable individual.
Father Jay McLeod came to All Saints Church three and a half years ago. Recognising at once a need to address the problem of community cohesion, the Anglican priest turned to a passion he shared with many other local people: sport.
“Sport cuts across every divide, be it religious, ethnic, cultural, gender or age,” says McLeod, a basketball fanatic who also loves cricket. “What better way to build bridges within a diverse neighbourhood than by putting on activities that also help young people stay healthy and keep them off the streets.”
It is raining outside, so this evening more than 30 children aged from 10 to 13 are playing basketball in the Westfield Middle School gym. White, black, Asian, girl, boy – it doesn’t seem to matter. All are having fun, trying hard and, although full of energetic exuberance, playing fairly alongside and with one another. As one group work on their shooting with coaches Terry Paul and Sophie Baugh, both local basketball fanatics from African-Caribbean backgrounds, others play tag games to practice dribbling under the guidance of head coach Daniel Pickup, who has stayed in the area since his university days.
Amir Zeb, another local who has come directly from a cricket match to help out with coaching, shoots a knowing look to one boy who is sulking after a team mate fluffs her shot. It is enough and this youngster, who not long ago might have thrown a tantrum, grins and gets on with the game. He remembers being congratulated himself by team mates for scoring his first ever points just a few weeks back. “I wasn’t used to doing good in teams, but the others were really pleased that I had scored and that gave me confidence,” he says. “You have to support your team mates whoever they are.”
A girl who has only been in the country two years since arriving from Zimbabwe in 2005, adds: “Playing basketball has made me more sure of myself and I have made many new friends.”
A qualified basketball coach, McLeod is explaining to another group of youngsters about the club philosophy – play hard, play smart, have fun – derived from legendary American high school basketball coach Morgan Wooten. “We only have one shot – if a child turns up and feels uncomfortable at the session, chances are they won’t come back,” McLeod says.
No fear of that. The All Saints basketball club, which started in November 2005 after seven youngsters from the church and McLeod realised they had a mutual interest, is thriving. Today, more than 60 youngsters a week between the ages of six and 13 attend. For watching family members, the basketball sessions at Westfield are also becoming a social event.
Known trouble spot
For older teenagers, street-ball sessions have been set up nearby at a known trouble spot. “It’s informal match play and gives us a chance to make contact with and advise those harder-to-reach young people who want to play but don’t want to take part in structured coaching sessions,” says John Jones, a local project worker with rehabilitation agency Nacro who also works on the street-ball project.
Last year, together with prominent members from the local Asian communities, McLeod also started up a Queen’s Park junior cricket club. McLeod, an American who fell in love with the game when at university in the UK in the 1980s, says: “Asians in particular love cricket, but most of the 10 or so cricket teams in Queen’s Park each tend to serve one particular group. We wanted to give all youngsters a chance to play structured organised cricket together.
“What we are doing is not going to solve all the issues and tensions within our neighbourhood overnight,” says McLeod. “But people are starting to mix, talk and get to know each other. And that is an important first step towards building a more cohesive community.”
When organising successful community sports activities remember:
* Start young – disaffection can become too entrenched if not tackled before teenage years
* Start small – put on something high quality for a few, then word will spread encouraging more participants and volunteers
* Involve local people in organisation, coaching and marketing – they know the area and its people best
* By being a voluntary group, you can act immediately in response to a need without having to wait three months for funding applications to go through.
This article appeared in the 7 June issue under the headline “Playing in the same ballpark”