London Sport Awards: ‘When Marcus Rashford is talking, about food poverty, it’s about kids in our borough’
hen we talk of the role that sport has played in helping people through this pandemic, it is often in relation to the elite: the return of Premier League football providing relief after the monotony of those early lockdown days or the sight of fans back at Wimbledon and Lord’s this summer, reveling in the much-referenced cathartic release of shared spectatorship and celebration.
But tonight’s London Sport Awards will honor the individuals, projects and organizations that have best utilized sport as a positive force on a much more local level, to support the most vulnerable in their communities throughout a troubling 18 months and drive the capital’s post-pandemic recovery from its very grassroots.
Among them is Nahimul Islam. A 26-year-old council data analyst from Wapping, Nahimul is nominated for the Volunteer of the Year award in recognition of his many-pronged approach (“We do so many projects I lose count of them all,” he says) to tackle Issues that range from child food poverty and a dearth of employment opportunities for young people, to technological poverty and a lack of sporting opportunity for girls from certain cultural backgrounds.
Since the start of the pandemic, Nahimul has delivered meals to the homeless, who were unable to rely even on the generosity of passers-by as the streets became deserted, provided equipment and online yoga classes to help parents stuck at home with children as schools closed stay active and even launched a “Dragon’s Den-style” non-profit that supports other volunteers and organizations with putting their own ideas into action.
It is quite the list, and that is before you get to what might be considered his flagship project, certainly the biggest he has ever undertaken, a set of holiday sports camps which this summer gave 1,200 children free access to four weeks of activity, specifically targeted at neglected groups in some of London’s poorest areas.
“Not everyone’s got a car, not everyone can afford bus travel,” Nahimul says. “So, if you haven’t got a holiday camp in every single ward and every part of the community then there are still a lot of kids missing out.
“I see kids on a regular basis that don’t leave their estate. For six weeks of a summer holiday, all they do is stay in that estate, they don’t go out of the local area. But there were about ten different wards in the borough [Tower Hamlets] that had nothing going on.”
Crucially, every child left each day with not only hours of exercise and much-missed social interaction under their belt, but also a full belly, the camps providing free meals at a time when Marcus Rashford’s campaigning had the unfairness of the families face to struggle feed their children during school holidays in the spotlight.
“That’s what spurred us on,” Nahimul says. “Tower Hamlets is one of the most deprived boroughs in the whole country, so when Marcus Rashford is talking, he’s talking about kids in our borough.
“I wanted to give these kids a hot meal. We tried to be slightly boujie, going with the cous cous, roast chicken, lasagnes, all that kind of stuff! We wanted the kids to actually enjoy it. We spent that extra bit of money to give the kids a memorable experience.”
Footballer Marcus Rashford received an MBE for services to vulnerable children (Andrew Matthews/PA)
/ PA Wire
The participants are not the only people to benefit either.
“All my lead staff are qualified, experienced coaches but all the assistant coaches are young people from our community,” Nahimul adds. “They know the community better, they understand what the kids go through.
“If I can get a 16-year-old who’s never had a job in his life before, take him under our wing, get him his qualifications and he works for four weeks over summer camp, he’s going home with money that he never had before.”
Like much of Nahimul’s work, the camps were run in partnership with Wapping Youth FC, the football club he founded as a teenager in the hope of ensuring talented young boys did not miss out on opportunities to pursue their passion because of where they lived or how much money their parents earned. As the camps, which will return this month for the Christmas holidays with a target of reaching 1,500 children, attest to, it has long since become much more.
“I never had a vision for it to become this big,” he says. “As we grew, we’ve got six or seven hundred people engaged with us on a weekly basis. I thought to myself: ‘This is where we can make an impact’.
“If there’s an issue, like a pandemic, we’ve got the capacity because of the people and the diversity among us to do absolutely anything.”