How does a charity that revolves around water and relies on sport for fundraising continue through two lockdowns? For the last few months, The Ahoy Centre, based in Deptford, has kept on going despite a big financial loss. LAURA DAY found out more.
“You can’t really replicate sailing on the Thames virtually,” says Dan O’Sullivan, fundraising manager for The Ahoy Centre. “That was the first impact – how can we take something that’s so reliant on face-to-face contact to now be virtual, to keep them engaged with what we do, and actually widen our reach in the community?”
For 17 years, Ahoy has been providing opportunities for disabled, disadvantaged and at-risk youths with its wide range of programmes, typically working with about 500 beneficiaries per year. Though “disadvantaged” may have come to mean “low income” to many, Dan says it’s not always money that’s the problem – youths may have behavioural issues which learning outside of the classroom can help with.
“It’s an alternative atmosphere for young people. When you’re in an area which is outside your comfort zone or being on the water, it makes you have to listen,” says Dan. “You can be the most un-attentive young person in an environment you’re comfortable with. But as soon as you go out on the water, it creates this calm. You’re in open air, and they begin to change their attitudes in a natural way.”
Ahoy offers a variety of programmes and activities to help boost young people’s future prospects. They include Shipmates, its youth volunteering programme for those aged between 8 and 18; apprenticeships for 16-25-year olds; Royal Yachting Association-accredited courses, and education sessions. Ahoy also provides training for those with disabilities.
But because of the pandemic, Ahoy’s successful programme of activities were stopped. Sporting events were cancelled, fundraising from which made up about £400,000 of its income. “We have been quite transparent about having lost money,” says Jade Dyer, who looks after Ahoy’s fundraising and comunications.
Like many charities, Ahoy turned to online events and social media in lockdown to begin recouping some of what was lost. Apprentices and youth volunteers were invited to online cookery sessions, as well as nautical and maritime-themed education streams. Ahoy designed the online events around its ethos of team-building, so its beneficiaries were still building up skills to build their independence while away from the centre.
Ahoy also contacted its beneficiaries’ families and offered them hot meals. Dan says: “Many of our beneficiaries come from financially unstable families. That really brought together the effect of what we can do for the people that come through our doors. Rather than just the young person that sails, we now reach the whole family and inspire maybe a brother or sister to get engaged with the charity in the long-term as well.”
In November the team also ran a new fundraising challenge, called Rowvember. “We worked out what would have been the number of miles people would have rowed for us this year,” says Jade, which happened to be 7,476. “We took that goal and said let’s try and achieve these miles still, but not in the water.” They also made the figure their fundraising goal.
Fundraisers were invited to cycle, walk, row indoors – whatever they wanted to do – to raise money for the centre. Ahoy far exceeded its fundraising goal, raising over £15,200, which Jade says was “truly, truly amazing.” She says that Rowvember is likely to be incorporated into Ahoy’s annual fundraising drives, given the unpredictability of sporting events. “Even though it’s been a difficult year there’s a small good in the bad for us. It’s really pushed us to achieve different methods of fundraising.”
Dan adds that despite the successes and diversification, Ahoy has ultimately suffered “massive losses as a charity”, and uncertainty means the young people it works with could “be swept under the carpet and forgotten in society.”
He says: “We need to make sure that we’re there, to make sure that we continue to be there for 10, 20, 30 years’ time.” Part of that is equipping apprentices and volunteers with the skills that will send them back into the community and thriving. And the success of the Rowvember fundraising has meant Ahoy has been able to extend the learning for its two apprentices.
“Because of the overwhelming support that we’ve received from our fundraising over the past couple of months we’ve been able to extend their scheme for a couple months,” says Jade. “They’re going to be in a position where we’re able to offer them new qualifications and new skills on top of what they’ve already achieved from Ahoy. It’s a real success story”.
The prospects for apprentices and volunteers after being involved with Ahoy are strong, using their new skills and qualifications to work in maritime careers, including on Thames Clippers, doing seasonal boat work, and even becoming employed as Ahoy training apprentices.
“There is a real progression for people who want to go into that sort of industry,” says Jade. “It’s a real roundabout circle of people attending Ahoy, and they then want to give something back to us.”
As well as being accessible to anyone with a disability, including adapted boats and hoists to lift volunteers, diversity and inclusion is just as important to Ahoy, particularly as it is in a diverse community.
“The biggest stigma you have is rowing and sailing are always perceived as affluent, [that] you need to be white British, you need to be from an affluent background,” says Dan. “Ahoy is breaking that stigma. We really look at engaging the BAME community. You look at rowing, you look at the Olympics getting better, but you very rarely see a black man or woman in a boat.”
Despite the difficult year, Ahoy’s visibility is increasing, and its good work is being recognised. The closure over lockdown affected its volunteers and apprentices, disrupting the routine that can be important for people with special needs.
“We’re really seeing a growth of the community vibes, and volunteers are coming and getting involved,” says Dan. “Throughout this four-month period, we’ve recognised that our support base and the passion behind what we do as an organisation is stronger than we probably thought.”
Next year is about maintaining the charity, and diversifying its funding. “I don’t think we’re going to see a growth in our programmes,” says Dan. “But the main thing is we maintain our service, we continue to provide these progressive opportunities for young people, and that our funding by the end of the year will allow us to plan and grow for 2022.”
To find out more about The Ahoy Centre, or to donate, visit ahoy.org.uk.
This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people in SE London have responded to the coronavirus pandemic.
LAURA DAY is a freelance journalist specialising in health and wellbeing. She is based in Hither Green.
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