Sheffield skatepark helps to transform young lives

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The young people of Sheffield face many challenges, whether because they are living in a deprived area, struggling in mainstream education or have an unstable home life. One family decided enough was enough and have built a constantly growing and unique community to help young people overcome these barriers and achieve their potential.

Onboard Skatepark on Little London Road has grown from an activity hub for children and young people to engage in sports and recreation, to a safe environment for some of Sheffield's most vulnerable and disengaged young people.

Now the skatepark not only runs skateboarding, parkour, street art, photography and many more classes, it also provides one- to-one support to educate and train young people, including providing a space for them to sit their GCSEs.

The family behind the project has a long history of helping children and young people.

Amy Cooper, the park project manager, and the rest of her family were inspired to begin Onboard in 2012, as a legacy to her father, Mike Hulley, who had recently passed away.

Amy, who is from Dore, said: “Onboard started out as a legacy to my dad but it quickly grew when we realised that we could make it into something that could literally change lives.

“We started off by training young people to be mentors and youth workers to support the kids coming to the park while teaching them skateboarding and BMX skills.

“Then when we realised the extent of the needs of the people coming to us we applied for funding from South Yorkshire’s Community Foundation (SYCF).

“The Comic Relief funding we received from SYCF was really a turning point for us. We have been able to provide bespoke learning programmes and AQA courses. We can work with more age groups and have helped young people sit their GCSEs, which they have passed.

“Our experience combined with the funding meant we were also able to work directly with schools.

“Last year we worked with 49 students and only one didn’t move on into employment or education.

“This academic year we are working with 14 schools across Sheffield, supporting 121 students.”

The skatepark has become a way of life for Amy and her family and for other staff too. Their dedication has helped transform Onboard into a safe haven which has become a second home to many of those that walk through its doors.

Amy continued: “One young man who we have worked with for a while, when he came to us he hadn’t set foot in school for four years, was heavily abusing drugs and was in and out of police custody all the time. So before we could do anything we had to make him feel safe and over a period of time, with one-to-one mentoring, he stopped resisting our help and started coming in on his own time as well, to work on bikes and actually built his own too. Now he has passed his maths GCSE , is mentoring other riders and doing a traineeship.

“The temptation with the skatepark, because it is so big, is to fill it with hundreds of people but that just wouldn't work. We cap it because our approach is targeted and having a small group and the option of one-to-one support works much better, as many of the kids we work with have mental health issues. If we took on too many at once we wouldn’t be able to support them all fully and get them to their full potential.”

Despite only running since 2012, the social enterprise is already on its way to sustainability. The Comic Relief grant funding from SYCF enabled them to employ specialised staff to run their learning programmes and outreach work and they have gained contract work and kept staff on.

Amy continued: “We have been able to do so much already but there is always more to be done. The needs of our students are so vast, including young people in care, sexual exploitation, drug addiction, gangs, the list goes on. We have to evaluate all the services we provide all the time to make sure we are doing our best by them. It is always crazy busy here but we don’t mind.”

The Onboard team are now getting ready to take their enrichment model to other skateparks around the county to help them work in the same way and hopefully with the same success.

Amy added: “The young people we have here are usually at rock bottom but with the right positive and safe environment we are able to make a difference.

“All of us are passionate about what we do and are ambitious for change.

“We are so proud of all the people we have been able to help to improve their lives.”