Fresh from being awarded the highest possible accolade in The Mayor’s Safer Parks Award, Robby Sukhdeo and everyone involved at Albert Road Recreation Ground in Haringey are not stopping still. (If you are not familiar with Haringey in North London it can safely be described as a ‘mixed’ environment.) With plans to expand the café further and develop the model within another park, it’s hard to see what will stop them.
However, it wasn’t always so easy and the plaudits weren’t piling up like they are today, Robby recounts how hard work and his entrepreneurship turned a derelict building into the social hub it has become…
Around 8 years ago, a teacher at the time, Robby started to coach his school’s tennis team after a friend convinced him. Within three years the team was competing as one of the best state schools in the country, winning the Greater London championships and competing at National finals.
Wanting a change of scenery and realising tennis was his passion, Robby saw the potential for change in a local run down clubhouse. The derelict, graffiti-ridden pavilion at Albert Road recreation ground was not an eyesore, not to Robby anyway, it was an opportunity to create a thriving accessible community focal point. He enquired about the lease on the building and eighteen months later was granted the rights to the property for 25 years, and quit his job. Through mortgaging his house, Robby was able to inject some well needed money into the place, buying furniture from eBay (a smart move capitalising on other cafes closing) and even the artificial lawn online too.
Nowadays 800 kids are playing tennis and attending sports camps, and a significant number of parents are playing tennis again too. One scheme that has been pivotal in creating this ‘sport for all’ ethos is the free equipment and court hire for kids, as well as lending out football goals and provision for other sports such as basketball, netball and cricket. In creating such a welcoming atmosphere, one objective that the team has stuck to is, a family should be able to eat and drink in the cafe for less than twenty pounds, a great deal in London.
In 2008, a deputy head with a child using the Pavilion’s facilities recommended the place to Sue Mappin, a director for the Tennis Foundation. Upon arrival she was amazed, stating she didn’t know what she was looking for but in the Pavilion, she’d found it. Giving a huge 100% grant (previously only 20% given, maximum!), the Tennis Foundation were able to help Robby completely rebuild the courts, adding extra runback and building four mini tennis courts and a basketball court with shorter rings as well. In addition to this floodlights were installed last year, creating much longer playing hours. So it came as no surprise that everyone then caught wind of what was happening down at Albert Road and the awards came thick and fast: LTA Tennis Park of the Year 2008, National Beacon site for Tennis the last two years, Green Flag status for the last four years and Robby himself was awarded National Sports Development Officer of the Year.
Though all the awards are real encouragement for everyone at Albert Road, the biggest problem that the club has overcome has to be the abuse and attacks on the clubhouse from the local gang, snapping trees and smashing roof tiles, “sometimes two hundred roof tiles would go missing a night” explains Robby.
Through eighteen months of being mindlessly abused, the team tried everything and came close to snapping, but through a bold move the problem was solved in a matter of weeks. The team at the Pavilion started to engage the gang members, employing them in the cafe and taking them on as football coaches, and the gang responded by acting as a security policy for the park, protecting it from others meaning harm.
Making a difference
Once she could be seen sitting on the roadside on her own, now Gigi is a vibrant member of the team at the Pavilion. The transformation took place after Robby approached Gigi’s mum and offered to employ her, knowing that with a little help Gigi could become so much more. Much to the delight of everyone down there this proved to be exactly right, now she is always down at the pavilion, even on days off, checking up and greeting everyone who knows her, which is quite a few! This giant increase in confidence is all through giving someone a chance and trusting them, it’s turned Gigi’s life around.
Pavilion Sports & Café is a prime example of social enterprise at work, collaborating with virtually everyone that overlooks the park.
The local secondary school uses the facilities and even uses the café’s minibus during the week all for free, and due to it being a partnership based on trust, in return the school give Pavilion use of its sports hall for ten weeks over the summer, for free!
Other partnerships keeping the Pavilion thriving involve Maurice Saatchi himself designing the logo and sweatshirts. Also the North London British Australian Rules Football club is using the Pavilion for free (although the place makes a killing behind the bar, just think about 250 Aussie rules fans enjoying themselves in the sun, not hard is it).
The club even has a link with the ski resort Serre Chevalier in France, and plans to run holidays to the resort and also host their French counterparts. With all this happening at the park, the council are jumping on board, relaying all paths and adding more benches. In fact, the whole community is behind the place, with 109 acceptances of planning permission out of 110.
Entrepreneurship and sustainability
There are numerous classes and activities to get involved with as well as the most obvious, sport. Each person that wants to teach something at the pavilion is given their own deal, allowing both them and the pavilion to benefit, for example, one teacher takes all the money for the first 4 customers and then splits it 50/50 with the pavilion for the rest, and erm, did I mention the room hire was free! The method is tried and tested though, customers spend money in the café too. Robby describes it as “get started for free and if it does well, then we can work something out”.
Moving forward into the future, it is clear that developing kids involved with the pavilion is something that the team highly value, with a five thousand pound grant secured from ‘Safer London’ in order to create the local kids into coaches.
Even during the interview, Robby points out a sixth former from the next door school taking his basketball level 1 coaching qualification through the scheme, and on a tour of the building is Daniel, a tennis coach that came from within the community, now employed permanently as a coach. This kind of social inclusion is the greatest mark of the impact the Pavilion has had on the community, youngsters maturing from swinging rackets at thin air and crying at grazed knees in to local role models for others and showcasing what sport really can do for a person and their society.