St Helens in Lancashire is a town with a proud history of coal mining and glass making. It was the home of such industrial giants as Pilkington, Beechams and Ravenhead glass and had half a dozen major collieries; Pilkingtons is now the town’s only remaining large industrial employer whilst the last pit closed in 1993.
The process of de-industrialisation has left St Helens with major issues. It is in the top ten boroughs for drugs-related admissions to hospital and in the bottom 10% for childhood obesity. Knife crime is also rising rapidly in the area with the spread of ‘county lines’ gangs out of the main cities across the North West.
St Helens is known worldwide for its professional rugby league club, which compete in the Super League, the top tier of competition in Europe. That is not the only sport that has put the town on the map; boxing champs such as Gary Stretch and Martin Murray hail from St Helens. Wild Card ABC (an amateur boxing club named after Manny Pacquiao’s boxing gym in California), the driving force behind Parr Sports has also produced its fair crop of champions. But a boxing club based in the heart of such a disadvantaged area offers far more than health benefits to its neighbourhoods.
We fight for fun, for social acceptance. To be different, to defend ourselves. To hold our heads high, to build our confidence. To be pushed out of our comfort zones. It has changed how I see myself
Parr Sports and Community Centre was established in June 2016 to undertake an asset transfer of a run-down youth centre previously managed by St Helen’s Council. This took place in May 2017 on the basis of a 25-year lease. Power to Change awarded Parr Sports a grant of £174, 515 in January 2019 toward the refurbishment of the building and the salary of a part-time Centre Manager.
The benefits of taking part in sports are well proven but boxing is a particular hook for many young people. Its values of discipline and self care go far beyond mere fitness; you can read further research on this subject here and here.
In places like St Helens, sports like boxing can play a key role in keeping vulnerable young people out of involvement in gangs and the reduction of crime levels. These risks became clear to Dominic Hodnett when he moved into the area; he knew from his own past that boxing could provide a hook to a better path. He set up sessions in a tiny hall in Parr, expecting 10 people to turn up instead of the 30 who came along.
Dominic knew little about running a club and the governance, safeguarding and fundraising involved so he engaged Sported, a 3,000 strong membership based organisation steeped in helping communities to use sport to tackle some of the knottiest issues around youth violence, community cohesion and mental health. They provided a range of services and benefits, in particular a skilled mentor to help him stabilise and grow the club.
Sported could see that facilities were always the key issue but through their support and now that of Power to Change and others, the organisation progressed from the tiny hall, to an old shipping container and finally to the merger with Parr Sports in 2018. This has meant massive increase in membership potential and a far more central location within the community. Dominic continues to run Parr Sports and was recently given the Pride of St Helens award for his work in the community.
Since Wild Card merged with Parr Sports 18 months ago, crime is down 30% in the area and the police are more likely to be seen sparring at the gym than on patrol in the area. The club has also won awards from the Merseyside Police Authority for its work in the community.
And in case you still thought that boxing was a sport just for boys and men, out of an active membership of just over 500, 52% are female.
You’ll see more emotional boxers than you would athletes in other sport. Like, you will see a grown man cry, that’s a good thing because it breaks down stigmas - that you don’t have to be so tough
Trading for local benefit
Power to Change’s money sits alongside grant funding from organisations such as the Steve Morgan Foundation, Bernard Sunley Charitable Foundation, Sport England, Garfield Weston and Enovert. Over £400k has been raised in total to refurbish the centre.
As well as refurbishing the basic infrastructure of the building, the funding has gone towards two multi use games areas that get hired out for football, rugby and other sports. The enterprising nature of this community business was recognised recently by the Steve Morgan Foundation who commended Parr Sports in their Entrepreneur Awards for Community Impact in September 2019.
The needs of specific groups of local people who have been previously marginalised have also been recognised in the provision of walking football for seniors, day-time care for local mothers and sports facilities for those with disabilities.