The sports philanthropists transforming lives

Sports philanthropy comes in many guises, from supporting would-be Olympic medallists to transforming the lives of disadvantaged teenagers and giving sick children a day they will never forget. Claire Wrathall reports

The Barrie Wells Trust helped to fund the early career of heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill
The Barrie Wells Trust helped to fund the early career of heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill | Image: Steven Paston/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

In 2010, on the plane home from the World Cup in South Africa, Barrie Wells, a lifelong supporter of Liverpool Football Club, happened to meet Kenny Dalglish, footballing legend and the team’s soon-to-be manager (again). Wells – an insurance specialist who, in his words, “would come up with innovative insurance ideas, create businesses from scratch and then, when I’d proved they worked, sell them to global players like Axa” – had sold last company, Premierline Direct, to the international financial services provider Allianz four years earlier. He and a couple of friends were hoping to treat themselves to an executive box at Anfield, Liverpool’s stadium, for the coming season. Such boxes can be hard to score, so to speak. A mutual acquaintance, also on the flight, asked if Dalglish could help. He said he’d see what he could do. A day or two later, he called Wells: as luck would have it, the Spanish striker Fernando Torres was giving up his box prior to going to Chelsea. Wells had 24 hours to decide. He rang his friends, but they’d changed their minds. It would cost him about £75,000 for the year, but he took it anyway. Overnight he had realised how he might use the box philanthropically. Every match day, he resolved, he would fill it with seriously ill patients from Alder Hey Children’s Hospital.

Barrie Wells with Jessica Ennis-Hill
Barrie Wells with Jessica Ennis-Hill

The result was Box4Kids, a scheme of the Barrie Wells Trust that eight years on works with over 80 hospitals to enable thousands of sick and disabled children to attend events at venues across the UK – from the racecourses at Aintree and Ascot to Wembley Stadium and the All England Club in Wimbledon, via every Premier League ground – by persuading box holders (corporate or individual) to allow the charity to use them when they’d otherwise be empty. That way, children, some of them with not long to live, get to enjoy top-flight matches and competitions (and also occasionally pop concerts) in a safe and relaxing environment and are “treated like a VIP for the day”. And their parents get to see them happy. As Jackie Wild – now a trustee of the charity, whose nine-year-old son, another passionate Liverpool supporter, lost his battle with leukaemia a couple of months after his Box4Kids-hosted evening at Anfield – put it: “Elliot described it as the best night of his life. As a parent, to witness that joy on your child’s face is irreplaceable.”

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Box4Kids was not Wells’ first philanthropic venture. Having sold Premierline, “initially I supported girls’ schools in India and a water project in Africa, but I wasn’t really involved in them beyond looking at business plans and writing cheques.” It was while attending the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, however, that it struck him that elite athletes need funding at the start of their careers and if they’re set back by injury. The first he offered to sponsor was the heptathlete Jessica Ennis (now Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill), whose promising career had been stalled by a stress fracture in her right foot, which had prevented her from competing in Beijing. She needed a dedicated physiotherapist and further javelin training. In return he asked that she, and the others he helped, give six and a half days a year to go into schools to encourage young people to follow their example. In total Wells supported 20 athletes, 11 of whom went on to finish in the top six of their finals at the London Olympics. Ennis-Hill won a gold medal and a silver in Rio four years later, while another beneficiary, gymnast Beth Tweddle, took bronze on the uneven bars in 2012.

Heptathlete and pentathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson was another beneficiary, and is now the Trust’s patron
Heptathlete and pentathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson was another beneficiary, and is now the Trust’s patron | Image: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The grants he made were mostly around £10,000 apiece (though some were twice that) – he required regular business plans from the athletes to justify their expenditure – and varied from enabling the pole vaulter Holly Bleasdale (now Bradshaw) to buy longer poles, to altitude training in South Africa for the middle-distance runner Jenny Meadows, and sessions with a sports psychologist for pentathlete Freyja Prentice. In the case of Katarina Johnson-Thompson, gold medallist in the heptathlon at this year’s Commonwealth Games and in the pentathlon at the World Indoor Championships, “I paid for taxis to get her to and from training because heptathletes have a lot of equipment. And then when she was 17 I paid for her to have driving lessons, and as soon as she passed her test, I bought her a car.” Johnson-Thompson is now patron of the Barrie Wells Trust. “But I got enormous benefit from it too,” Wells insists, reeling off the athletes’ achievements and the places he travelled to watch them train and cheer them in competitions. Though he no longer funds them, most remain involved with Box4Kids and host events for it. “And three of them,” he adds touchingly, “invited me to their weddings.”

Football Beyond Borders helps young people to thrive at school through coaching and football-themed projects
Football Beyond Borders helps young people to thrive at school through coaching and football-themed projects | Image: Paul Calver

Think of a sport, and the chances are there’s at least one charity that strives to help people set back by disadvantage. Boxing Futures, for instance, “fights for better lives” for young offenders and those to whom the acronym Neets – Not in Education, Employment or Training – applies. Train someone in non-contact boxing and not only will their fitness improve, but their self-confidence and consequently their ability to find work and hold down a job. Tennis for Free, meanwhile, encourages children from low-income families to take up what tends to be seen as a middle-class preserve, by providing free coaching and access to tennis courts in local parks around the UK.

Football Beyond Borders’ co- founder Jack Reynolds
Football Beyond Borders’ co- founder Jack Reynolds | Image: Viktorija Pociute

The charity Chance to Shine, which grew out of a Cricket Foundation campaign conceived by Mervyn King (now Lord King of Lothbury, then governor of the Bank of England), the broadcaster Mark Nicholas and the bat manufacturer Duncan Fearnley, has a similar objective in encouraging state schools to reintroduce the sport and inspire young people – girls as much as boys – to take it up. More than 5,000 schools were involved in 2017 and four million children have now taken part in its initiatives, run in collaboration with the UK’s 39 county cricket boards, which also extend to after-school and weekend street cricket sessions (“cricket’s answer to five-a-side football”), played by teams of six (rather than 11) with a tennis ball wrapped in tape in sports halls, youth clubs, parks and community centres.

Para-badminton player Mary Margaret Wilson receives funding from Path to Success
Para-badminton player Mary Margaret Wilson receives funding from Path to Success | Image: Scottish Disability Sport

As Donald Brydon, chairman of the London Stock Exchange, the Sage Group and Chance to Shine, writes in the introduction to its recently published report Our Impact, “Many of these children would simply not have had the opportunity to play the game… The impact we are having on children’s physical and mental well-being is tangible.” The report also points out that it’s not just about cricket itself: it also encourages physical activity and social cohesion (children from south Asian backgrounds are half as likely to belong to a sports club as their white British peers); builds confidence, self-esteem and a sense of belonging; and even teaches youngsters to cope with losing and other setbacks. Winning too, of course. And, in the words of another of its trustees, Anshu Jain, president of Cantor Fitzgerald and former co-CEO of Deutsche Bank, where he captained the firm’s cricket team, it promotes “its values of fair play and team work”.

Path to Success was founded by art collector Anita Choudhrie
Path to Success was founded by art collector Anita Choudhrie | Image: Charles Shearn Photography

Football too can have a transformative effect on attainment. “I grew up playing football in Birmingham and had a lot of good friends who when it came to anything to do with football – talking about tactics, transfers, their favourite players – retained incredible amounts of information and were really eloquent,” says Jack Reynolds, co-founder of Football Beyond Borders. “But when it came to school, [those skills] didn’t really translate.”

Cricketer Susie Rowe coaching children at a Chance to Shine summer camp
Cricketer Susie Rowe coaching children at a Chance to Shine summer camp | Image: Chance to Shine

On graduating, Reynolds had joined the Ministry of Justice on the Civil Service’s Fast Stream programme, its highly competitive “accelerated path to leadership”, when it occurred to him that “combining football with education could be a fantastic way to develop so many of the key skills that young people need and encourage them to thrive at school”. Hence Football Beyond Borders, which he registered as a charity in 2014. This autumn it is collaborating with 36 schools in and around London. “We get calls from headteachers asking for help with students, normally boys, who love football but are not doing as well as they should academically,” Reynolds explains. “Other schools see what we do as a way to broaden the skills of those doing well because it encourages them to think about careers in a different way.

Chance to Shine co-founder Mervyn King with Samantha Cameron, cricketer Steven Finn and Ruby-Mae Hockham, the three millionth child helped by the charity
Chance to Shine co-founder Mervyn King with Samantha Cameron, cricketer Steven Finn and Ruby-Mae Hockham, the three millionth child helped by the charity | Image: Zoe Norfolk

“Our work is always football themed and project based,” he continues. One challenge it recently set a group of students was to establish who was the better player, Messi or Ronaldo, the findings from which they then presented to a panel of experts at the analytics consultancy Football Radar. “There were lots of skills involved in that project,” he says. “Research, analysis, prepared written work, responding to feedback, oratory, teamwork, self-awareness.” It’s experience that can “reframe a young person’s view of themselves as a learner. They see the possibilities and the difference they can make. But we have to work really hard to make what we do engaging.”

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Certainly there is evidence to suggest FBB’s work is effective, with schools where it runs coaching and football education reporting falling truancy levels and improving behaviour. As Michael del Río, principal of Archbishop Lanfranc Academy in Croydon, the first school it worked in, has written: “It has made a tremendous difference to a number of our most vulnerable students by focusing on the importance of being in school every day and working hard to realise goals. A number of students at risk of becoming persistent absentees have turned around completely and are now keen to be here every day and engage. The motivational programme FBB provides focuses not simply on developing sporting skills, but on the wider key skills needed to be successful in all areas of life.”

Sport can be transformative in the way it helps people rebuild their lives physically as well. Mary Margaret Wilson, a former member of Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, not only has multiple sclerosis but survived a direct attack by the Taliban in which she was badly injured while on her fourth tour abroad. Later discharged from the army and unable to work, she decided to devote herself to sport when she felt well enough, competing in the first Invictus Games and winning a gold, a silver and four bronze medals as a swimmer, and two bronzes in athletics.

Her sport now is badminton, thanks in part to sponsorship from the charity Path to Success, and she is determined she’ll be part of Team GB in Tokyo in 2020, when the sport makes its debut in the Paralympics. “It’s been a godsend,” she has said of the funding, which pays for physiotherapy and nutritional advice, as well as flights to and entry fees for other competitions, such as this year’s Para-Badminton International championship in Uganda, where she won three gold medals. All things she would struggle to afford on a war pension.

Founded by Anita Choudhrie, art collector, philanthropist and wife of prominent businessman Sudhir Choudhrie, Path to Success runs a raft of programmes. “We have all along supported people with disabilities,” says Choudhrie, whose mission is to “turn inability into ability”. Her commitment to sports philanthropy dates back to 2012, when the donation of 83 high-spec wheelchairs to the NHS led her to start supporting wheelchair basketball, specifically a club called the London Titans, and an annual competition, the Wheelchair Basketball Challenge, at the Copper Box Arena in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The “feelgood factor” and “tremendous appreciation” that come from this have, in turn, led her to set up the charity’s current Path to Tokyo programme to support female athletes hoping to compete at the next Paralympics in wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, para-badminton and para-powerlifting. “All sports that don’t get enough funding,” she notes.

There are currently 12 beneficiaries in the programme, all “heavily challenged physically [but] ambitious and needing to be empowered. We’re very thrilled with them,” she adds. “But it’s not just about helping them to win medals. It’s also about not accepting your disability as a disability, about overcoming issues. That’s what really makes me feel such empathy towards them. Really, I am in awe. I have so much admiration for them.”

It’s also not just about the grants her charity makes. By organising fundraising dinners and events and “reaching out to the people I know, I can make people more aware”, she explains, that there are athletes with disabilities in need of support. Barrie Wells concurs. “Really my message to high-net-worth people like me is, ‘Don’t just write the cheque. Giving money is great, but so is giving time and access to networks.’” Indeed, sometimes who you know can make a difference in quite an unexpected way.”

In 2009, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, then 16, was in Italy to compete in the World Youth Championships in Athletics. “Just before she went, I asked if there was anything else I could do to help her,” recalls Wells. “‘Yes,’ she said. ‘If I win the gold medal, can you get me half an hour with Steven Gerrard?’,” the then Liverpool and later England captain, and no slouch himself when it comes to giving and raising money to help disadvantaged children.

Wells said he would, and was watching the competition on television when, just as she was about to come out for the 800m, “I got a text from her that said, ‘Guess what’s motivating me? You taking me to see Steven Gerrard.’” She duly took gold in the heptathlon. And, thanks to Wells, she got to meet her hero.

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