Throughout the week, evertonfc.com will be running a special series of features celebrating the award-winning early intervention work of Everton in the Community, which has led to a project the charity has led on being awarded £700,000 from the Home Office to extend its programmes. Donate to EitC by texting EITC31 £5 to 70070.
Save for the dance music pumping out over the speakers, it is a relatively quiet morning at the Awesome Walls Climbing Centre on a bitingly cold yet bright and sunny Monday.
As the clock ticks past 10.55, however, the sound of laughter and camaraderie suddenly sparks the north Liverpool facility into life.
A six-strong group of excited, energetic youngsters enter – all participants in the Everton in the Community Safe Hands programme.
The scheme sees EitC offer pastoral support for young offenders aged between 10-19. Safe Hands utilises education, sport, media and the arts to improve participants’ self-esteem, help them to gain qualifications and re-integrate into society.
Accompanying the young people at the climbing centre is the warm, enthusiastic figure of Anthony Harden, Safe Hands project manager.
He explains the “extreme success” the initiative has had since its launch in 2012, with more than 150 young people out of around 200 who have taken part in the programme not reoffending.
“We work with some young people who are in custody at present,” he says. “We’ve built up partnerships with youth offending teams, probation and other agencies that are involved around the sector. They can refer anyone who they feel may benefit from our support.
“We’ve worked with more than 200 young people and we are at a 79-per-cent non-reoffending rate.
“Nationally, around 76 per cent of young people reoffend within the first six months after their release from custody.
“So to flip it the other way is a real positive. We have managed to get a lot of young people into work and into further education. We have had a real big impact.”
Watching on as the youngsters scale the imposing, luminously-coloured walls at the climbing centre, the most striking aspect is the constant support and encouragement they offer each other.
Whether it is assistance in tying knots on their harnesses or offering reassurances as they ready themselves to tackle one of the steeper, more challenging structures – a sense of togetherness is evident.
“I’ve made new friends here,” says participant Coby. “We’ve all been through a lot of the same stuff.
“It helps a lot. When I go home, I’m in a good mood because I’ve been doing fun stuff all day.
“And we don’t just do activities like climbing – we have education sessions where we learn about the dangers of drugs and things like that. You learn something new every day.
“Before I came here, I was doing a lot of things I shouldn’t have been. I don’t do that stuff anymore. I’m just a lot happier.”
For project leader Anthony, seeing the development of the likes of Coby represents a huge source of pride.
“It’s fantastic when you can actually change a young person’s life,” he explains. “To take them where they were, whether it was from within custody or an issue like low self-esteem, it’s amazing to play a part in building them back up.”
October 2018 saw former Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein launch a new initiative that aims to use the power of football to better prepare people for release from prison.
The Twinning Project - which has been backed by the FA, the Premier League and the EFL – will pair professional clubs with prisons to deliver coaching, refereeing and other employability skills training to prisoners.
Anthony describes the scheme as a “fantastic step forward”. He says Safe Hands’ success highlights the positive impact football clubs can have in this field.
“We always pride ourselves in being one of the first to do a lot of things, both in the community and as a Club,” he explains.
“For six and a half years now, Safe Hands has been working with the custodial facilities, and having that relationship.
“It’s fantastic to see that other clubs are looking to get involved.
“Across the country, it’s only going to help young people.”
Safe Hands is based at 41 Goodison Road, which houses the EitC’s early intervention and crime reduction programmes.
Anthony believes the welcoming environment at 41 Goodison is one of several key factors that have helped the scheme flourish.
“It’s an open-door policy,” he says. “They can knock on, have a cup of tea and make some toast. They feel at home and safe there.
“I think being Everton does help us open up a few more doors to young people. People see the badge and are intrigued. We’ve got a fantastic group of staff, too. We bring so many skills and what we’re able to do is engage the young people – offer them exciting opportunities and give them hope.
“The variety of the activities we offer is also important. It’s not just sitting in a classroom or staying in the house, we’re very much getting out and about and trying new things.
“We have the climbing and, for example, even getting out to the lakes for a walk. That gives us a chance to have a chat and build relationships.”
Safe Hands participant Stephen, fresh from effortlessly racing up one of the more ominous climbing walls, says his prospects have been transformed since joining the programme.
He is now in the process of completing a mechanical apprenticeship and says the one-to-one guidance offered by EitC support workers has been instrumental in his progress.
“They encourage us to be more active and to help each other out in activities,” he says. "They come to speak to us if they feel like we’re a bit down, too. We have always got someone to talk to if we need it.
"I feel like I’ve come on a lot. I’ve got my apprenticeship with the mechanics and since I’ve been at EitC, a few more opportunities have arisen.”
Indeed, Stephen is now well on his way to achieving a NICAS (National Indoor Climbing Award Scheme) Level One certificate. Quite an achievement given when he first entered Awesome Walls a few weeks ago, he had a phobia of heights.
“The support workers have told me to try my best, give it all I’ve got, and they’ve helped me conquer that fear."
With a wide smile, he adds: “They’ve encouraged me to keep looking up.”