Calum French: It can spark a change

Calum French
Calum French is an ambassador for the charity Changing Lives, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year

IT started with a gym. Changing Lives, which began as a soup kitchen in Newcastle, is now a national charity that provides a host of services to those experiencing homelessness and other problems. The residents at one of their accommodation services, the Fells in County Durham, asked for a gym and Alan Hodgson, then the project lead, decided to make it happen. “I thought I always deliver on my promises. Then I thought, right what do I do?” he said.

There was a large, derelict building in the Fells, full of rubbish and old junk. Hodgson would spend the next three months clearing it out himself and painting the building, gradually converting it into a gym. “Luckily there’s a training provider that I work with who makes donations if we have training on site,” Alan said. “I said to the lads, look if you do this training, you get employability skills for yourselves but we get donations. I’ll use every penny of the donations, you’ve got my word, to build you a gym and I did it myself so that it cut down on the cost.”

He installed cardio equipment, weights and boxing bags. “I was thinking obviously the whole thing for young men is dealing with aggression but in a different way. I go running outside of work, I had to battle my own mental health issues when I was younger so I used running and I was just thinking about the link between sport, mental health, aggression and all that sort of thing. And I thought about the gym being a well-being place. To try and say to the lads look instead of going for a drink, come into the gym, exercise, feel good about yourself and get that anger out of you,” Hodgson said.

“Nobody can see you, just hit the bag,” he’d say. “It doesn’t matter if you’re hitting it and you’re crying like a baby, just get it out of you. [Eventually] you’ll get stronger. You’ll stop crying and you’ll feel good about yourself. You’ll get it all out and you’ll get the life that you deserve.”

He had asked Calum French, the GB boxer from nearby Gateshead, to officially open the gym. After a delay due to the coronavirus lockdown, he did so, and Calum has gone on to become an ambassador for Changing Lives. He’s proved to be the perfect advocate for their work and continues to return to the Fells and support their other projects. The boxer connected with the residents. “I was brought up in a bit of deprived area,” French said. “They’re the sort of people I grew up around so it’s quite easy to relate to them and speak to them about it.

“If they see someone like me from their background, doing something positive then sometimes I can influence them. If they see something or I say something, it could spark something in their head. To lead a better life or come off drugs and alcohol.”

At that time not only had the Olympic Games been postponed a year, but French’s weight class, 60kgs, had been removed from the tournament. “He didn’t sit wallowing,” Hodgson noted. “This was the most important thing where the residents clicked with him. Because he said it doesn’t matter what knocks happen in life.

“He was starting to talk to residents about setting goals or being disciplined and just not giving in.”

Calum reflected, “Obviously it wasn’t very nice getting my weight taken out of the Olympics and that but when you put it into perspective, some of these people are addicted to drugs, they’re homeless and everything. My problems aren’t even problems compared to theirs.”

Earlier this year, French was heading to a tournament in Lithuania just before it was confirmed he wouldn’t be going to Tokyo. “He told us all about Team GB and how they’re teaching them mindfulness, confidence and I thought you know what, he’s going to come back in a week’s time with this gold medal and a trophy,” Hodgson recalled. “So he came back a week later, met the same lads with the [gold] medal. He didn’t walk round to say look what I did. He didn’t do it about him, he did it about the message to them. He said look, this is what I’m trying to say to you. You don’t have to just accept what you’ve got. Set goals. You can do anything. You can be what you want to be, from today.”

The Fells is just one part of the organisation’s work. Changing Lives today employs over 600 people and manages over 120 projects with the support of more than 400 volunteers. It has grown and grown to meet increasing need across this country. They help people who have experienced the most challenging times, usually as a result of deprivation, trauma and discrimination. This year, Changing Lives is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The organisation is running a series of fundraising events to support their activities. They’re challenging people to get active while raising money for Changing Lives by completing 50km across nine days any way supporters want, be it walking, running, cycling, swimming, whatever, and split the distance in any way across the nine days from September 18 to September 26. Altogether, they’re hoping to reach a combined distance of 50,000km, so everyone who gets involved will help move them closer to their target. Sign up details can be found here:

“The biggest thing is that we believe everyone should have their own front door. That’s what it starts with. Nobody should be on the street,” Hodgson explained. “Then we give them the skills to stay [in housing]. So that could be the basic budgeting skills and how to look after a home. But then we make sure people have got what we call social resilience, so we make sure that people know where to go for a GP, know where to go for [addiction] services, where to go to get their benefits.

“Whatever enhances someone’s chances of succeeding we’ll go as far as we need to to help them.

“I say to our residents: when you give up on yourself, we don’t give up on you.”

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