The memorable thing about meeting Chris Grant, one of the founders of the FRE Flyers, was his complete passion and enthusiasm when sharing the story of the birth of the FRE Flyers during a sunny evening stroll through the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. I asked him to share his story….
“6th July 2005 was one of the best days that this country has had in my lifetime. It was the day that London swayed the IOC
[International Olympic Committee]
into rejecting the charms of runaway favourite, Paris, and embracing our “Singapore Promise” that – if the 2012 Games came to Stratford – we would use them to inspire and engage with young people facing immense challenges around the world.
Five years later, I had been inspired to become a volunteer Board Member of the International Inspiration Foundation: a collaborative effort involving the British Council, UNICEF, UK Sport, the Youth Sport Trust and others – which had set itself the target of fulfilling that Singapore promise by using sport to work in a meaningful way with 12 million children in 20 countries: a target which was ultimately blown away as more than 20 million children and young people were engaged, and 250,000 coaches, teachers and young leaders were trained.
The direct stimulus for the FRE Flyers had nothing to do with sport. It came about when I read a devastating statistic about my home city: the journey from Westminster, the seat of our democracy, to Stratford, our Olympic and Paralympic Park, is 10 stops on the Jubilee Line. In 2010, for each stop along the way, the average life expectancy of a baby born in that neighbourhood went down by just over a year. This felt inexcusable to me, and exacerbated my one real fear about physical legacy of the Games: that we might simply create a new tourist destination in the East of London, which offered nothing to young people who were growing up there, who had very real and immediate needs.
In May 2010, a small group convened at the Commonwealth Club in Northumberland Avenue to consider the question: “If you were planning to approach a group of young people in the East End of London in 2014 and ask what the Games had done for them, and wanted a positive answer, what would you do?” The group, which included Debbie Lye, the Director of International Inspiration, Steve Grainger, then CEO of the Youth Sport Trust, Geraldine Blake, CEO of Community Links in Newham and Jason Lee, Head Coach GB and England men’s hockey (at that point the reigning European Champions) came up with a clear answer: “You would reinvent the multisports club on the Olympic Park”.
We put some detail behind this, and I turned it into a document with which I then spent a few months trailing around to different funders and organisations trying to gather support. It soon became apparent that people had other priorities, or didn’t really understand what we were trying to do. But in 2011, when Jason Lee wanted to do some work with his squad to ensure that they really felt the benefits of being “at home” when they played in the London Games, and also to develop them as individuals and a team, the idea came about of creating a project in conjunction with Community Links, which could become a prototype for the club.
Quickly, we made arrangements to recruit 30 young people – boys and girls – through Community Links. We specifically avoided going through PE Departments – or schools at all, as we didn’t think they would be able to resist the temptation to send their “goodies” or their sporty pupils. Community Links ran programmes for young people facing all kinds of challenges, and they succeeded in bringing together a group who looked as far away from a classic junior hockey squad in this country as you can imagine.
Things moved quickly, and on 5th March 2011 the GB players met the group who would later name themselves the FRE Flyers for the first time. The deal with the youngsters was simple: show up to all the sessions and behave yourself well enough, and in just 12 weeks you’ll get on a bus with the GB squad and go to Holland and play a hockey match against a Dutch Club side.
What happened next could fill a book let alone a blog. For now, I’ll just say that the prototype was a huge success, and became the foundation for what has become a genuinely life-changing experience for a number of the young people. I’ll also say that – as the boys lost their game 4-1, and the girls 1-0 – the Dutch parents at Union Hockey Club simply refused to believe that the vast majority of the youngsters had never played the game three months earlier.
In the five years since then, a remarkable number of the original youngsters have continued to play and love hockey. They’ve been joined by new arrivals although, to be honest, the original vision of a thriving, large-scale multisports club on the Olympic Park remains elusive.
We’ve learned an immense amount and, with the new priorities of Government and Sport England, maybe the landscape will be more conducive to building the FRE Flyers and similar initiatives. I’m certainly going to take some of that learning in the Boardroom of Sport England, when I take up my place in September of this year.
Maybe most important, what has become clear is that hockey is too shining an asset to be confined to the leafy suburbs and lucky few. The qualities and skills developed by the FRE Flyers have made them more employable; healthier; more resilient and better at forming strong relationships – all things which contribute to a longer and happier life. Those Jubilee Line statistics on life expectancy at birth have actually got worse since 2010, as our country has seen inequality and unfairness grow. Wouldn’t it be great if hockey could be part of the solution to that glaring set of problems?”
Chris Grant – July 2016
Tomorrow we will catch up with Mama Jo to learn about her important role within the FRE Flyers.
For more information about the FRE Flyers:
Website : http://www.freflyers.co.uk/
Facebook: FRE Flyers Club
Virgin Money Giving: FRE Flyers Fundraising