What’s so special about Khalsa Youth Football Academy?
“It’s the welcome,” says sport-loving 16-year-old James Hart, who’s been coming regularly for two years after picking up a flyer in a shop.
“You don’t have to worry about the colour of your skin or your background. The moment you go inside, everyone’s treated the same.”
Khalsa’s two-year project, Connecting Hope, was made possible by funds raised through The Health Lottery. It delivers weekly activities for children and adults with learning difficulties and special needs in Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire. It also provides support to families reducing isolation in the community.
Young mentees like James work with qualified trainers to run the project, picking up social, practical and leadership skills as they go. James has always had a lot of energy and went through a tricky time with friendships at school. This led to him feeling dispirited and knocked his confidence, so coming to Khalsa for four hours twice a week has given him a massive boost.
“When I first started, it was just to make new friends, but as time went on I became a mentee,” he says.
“I’ve now got a youth leadership qualification and it’s given me lots and lots of confidence in myself. That feeling of helping others makes you feel better. It’s a win-win.”
Right now, James is in the middle of his GCSEs. Thanks to his time at Khalsa, he’s decided to stay on at school to do PE and English A levels and work towards becoming a sports coach.
Project leader Bal Singh has seen a real change in James over two years. He says the teenager has come out of his shell and is now happy to take the lead in sessions.
“James started out quite shy and would sit at the back at first, but now he’s proactive,” says Bal. “We’ve empowered him to be more confident in any situation and we’ve let him do it naturally, giving him that guided discovery. We’re all very proud.”
The mentee scheme is just one aspect of Bal and his team’s work. The uplift in participants’ mood, connectivity and social skills is a thread that runs through all of it.
“There’s always that little bit of uplift for the mentees – they look forward to coming and seeing their teammates so there’s a positive vibe,” says Bal.
“With those who have special needs, sessions are something their parents and carers look forward to because they meet up with others in the same position and can talk about their experiences.
“A training session might include skills such as kicking, striking, dexterity and mobility. You might have a child who finds it hard to even go into a building and we see them come in, start jumping and developing fine motor skills. If they’re non-verbal, we can use picture cards to show what’s happening now and next.”
After two years of funding raised through The Health Lottery, Bal is reflecting on what the project means to the community – and what its legacy will be.
“That funding has given us a venue space where we can meet regularly,” he says.
“Our volunteers are brilliant and we also hire staff to help us out seasonally. The venue and staffing are the platform and the rest comes from our passion and drive to try and achieve something. This project has opened all our eyes.
“The resources have helped give so much to the mentees, the kids with special needs and their parents. It’s really benefited us as an organisation and a community, so thank you to everyone who plays The Health Lottery for that support.”
Longer term, Bal thinks this project has given the community a “fire in our bellies”, with funding providing a springboard to keep the community connected.
“What we have here will continue,” he says.
“Sometimes it just takes a little bit of funding to create change and now we’ve become a voice for vulnerable families in the community and a way of connecting people who really need it.”
Connecting Hope Factfile
Bal Singh founded Khalsa Football Academy and the Connecting Hope project
Delivers weekly activities for children and adults with learning difficulties and complex special needs in Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire
Strengthening the community through fitness and teamwork
Expert support and advice for families
Reducing isolation and increasing connectivity in children and adults with special needs
Two-year project costing £27,115 fully funded through The Health Lottery