I was the youngest person to walk through the door of Dartmoor Prison; I had got involved with a gang that used sawn-off shotguns. I personally had never been violent to anyone, but I was a very angry young man. I have never hidden my past, and have put up my criminal record on the church noticeboard so people can see it.
I have met Tony Blair five times, but I was more nervous going on TV [Fortune: Million pound giveaway, ITV, Tuesdays 8 p.m.] to bid for money for our new church project for kids. We have already built a second floor on to the hall, and are desperate for extra space.
Around 21,000 people auditioned for the TV show. I was lucky to get selected for a live audition, let alone win my bid. We had to convince the panel, which included Jeffrey Archer, that we wanted some of their fortune. I got my £45,000. Just as I went on, I was warned they would push me about my criminal past, and they did. But it felt like the whole audience was rooting for me.
My community work started a few years ago when I was selling some illegal fags. This old lady came across the road to chat, and told me she was going home, shutting herself in her bedroom, and hoping the local drug-dealing yobs outside didn’t bother her overnight.
This made me really angry, and I tried to sort out this gang myself. But then the police got involved, and showed me that I could only effectively fight this yob culture through rules and regulations. I suppose that for the first time I was taught to fight within the law. I was determined to clear up the Nunsthorpe estate. I went on to win national awards for dealing with anti-social behaviour, including the Respect Award for Taking a Stand.
I went back to church [St Martin’s, Grimsby] because my missus wanted to get married for her 40th birthday, and she wanted the service in church. We had been together for 20 years, and have a family — three sons and a daughter. They are all involved with the local kids. We wanted to use the church hall for our reception, but it was closed up and not in use. So I managed to lease it and clear it up.
It went from there, as suddenly there was this venue to offer something to local kids; so we started a disco on Saturday night, and more than 100 turned up the first week. We are talking the sort of kids who have no money at all; so we didn’t want to charge them. So we started a fund-raising bingo, which now brings in £145,000 a year. Nearly all of it goes straight back into the community.
The church has been really supportive. From day one, Jo Middleton, the project manager, and the Team Rector, Canon Michael Hunter, were first-class. I think some of the older ladies of the parish who go to church on Sundays wondered what was happening. It must have been terrifying for them.
The Home Office called me about a big production we put on. We taught 100 kids (all from the estate) to perform an Abbamania show at the local auditorium. It was so successful that Louise Casey (Minister for Anti-Social Behaviour) gave us £6000 to put it on again. We were told no one would turn out again, but they were queueing round the block for the 12,000 tickets.
I know people knock the Prime Minister, but I thought he was genuine. I met him first at a short meeting with the former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke. He was really, really interested in what we were doing.
I go to the church hall every day, including Christmas. It has become my life; we cooked 84 dinners this 25 December. But when we started to need more room — we had simply outgrown the hall — it seemed obvious to try to use the church space, not build something new. It is a very big, Grade-II Listed building. We are also getting funding from Neighbourhood Renewal.
Using the church is really important. I feel strongly that by having the centre in the building, the Christian faith will feed through to the kids in different ways.
I read too much and devour anything about community. I have read a lot of stuff about the importance of play, and have just finished a book on community projects around the country.
As a child, I just wanted to survive. I had four brothers, four sisters, and a dad who was in the army. I was regularly farmed out, always in trouble, and lived in hand-me-downs.
The most important choice I
have made in my life was starting this community project. My mum and dad came to the Abbamania show, and I thought: this is the first time in my life I have done something that has made them proud of me. I would like to be remembered for making a difference in the community.
All sorts of people have inspired me along the way; our local police inspector, John Thirkettle, has been brilliant, as well as all the church people.
I can always remember a sermon by the Bishop of Grimsby [the Rt Revd David Rossdale]. He was talking about what church and community really means. It really spurred me on.
In the Bible, I like the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. I am not familiar with it all. As a child I went to church for Cub and Scout services.
Bureaucracy and red tape makes me angry. I am a “Do-it-now” person not a “Wait-till-tomorrow”. But I have had brilliant news this week: we are converting the inside of part of the church, and have just been told that we don’t need planning permission.
Holidays? I don’t really have the time or money to take them.
When I want to sit and reflect, I go to the office in the church hall. It is next to the church, and I just sit there on my own.
I would like to get locked in the church with Louise Casey. I hold her in high regard, and I would love to learn more about her work.
Steve Hill was talking to Rachel Harden.
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