JOINING a Sea Cadets Corps in land-locked inner London may not seem the most obvious after-school activity. But in the heart of the East End, the maritime charity is “transforming” young lives.
The Revd Fred Ashford-Okai has been chaplain, or “padre”, to the Sea Cadets unit at Newham Cornwell VC for seven years. The Cadets, he believes, provides an “important extension” of the education children receive at school.
“There was a boy at the school from Lithuania who was being bullied. He was an only child and spoke no English at that point,” he said last month. “We recommended he join, and since then his confidence has shot up.
“When he is here and being silly, deep down I say, ‘Great!’ — because there was a time when he wouldn’t open his mouth. Here, he is transformed.”
Mr Ashford-Okai is Priest-in- Charge of St Edmund’s, Forest Gate, in the diocese of Chelmsford, and also teaches at Kingsford Community School near by, from which many of cadets are recruited.
One of them, Sandra Akowuah, who is studying applied sciences in the sixth form, joined the Sea Cadets a year ago at the recommendation of Mr Ashford-Okai.
She said: “After school I would go to Fred and tell him my results, or if I needed help with anything. He told me about the Sea Cadets and said it would help boost my CV.”
Miss Akowuah, who is 16, has learned how to sail, and has gained swimming and canoeing qualifications at the Royal Docks, three miles away, in east London, where the unit carries out its marine activities in the summer.
“I am so much more confident,” she said. “I have learnt how to communicate effectively with other sea cadets and staff. I have also learnt how to march properly, a skill I had no idea how to do before.”
She also says she has accepted the “core values” of the Sea Cadets Corps: honesty, integrity, loyalty, self-discipline, and respect. It is Mr Ashford-Okai’s job to teach the core values to new recruits.
“The core is necessary to us as a body, a unit,” he said. “We are one body — the body is le corps in French — because we share values whether we are black, white, Christian, or Muslim. We are all cadets. We march as one.
“In the Corps, as in life, you are pushed to the limit, and at the limit, even if you are not a believer, you feel the edge, and you begin to ask philosophical questions.”
Newham Cornwell VC was named after one of the youngest holders of the Victoria Cross, John Travers Cornwell, a boy seaman from Manor Park, who died, aged 16, in the Battle of Jutland, during the First World War. It is one of more than 40 units in the capital, including the headquarters in Lambeth Road, south London.
Mr Ashford-Okai said that he joined at the suggestion of the British Legion, or so he thought. He had actually been invited to apply as padre of the Air Cadets, but met the Sea Cadets instead, who are located in the same building.
“Before they asked my name, they made a cup of tea,” he recalls. “They made me feel very welcome; so I became chaplain and also an adult volunteer, camping and doing all the basic training.” After two years, he realised his mistake: “It was clear the padre for upstairs got stuck downstairs. So now I am chaplain to both. It’s wonderful.”
The Corps was founded around the start of the Crimean War in 1854. On their return home from the war, sailors gathered orphans from the sea ports to form the Naval Lads’ Brigade. It was given official status in 1899, when Queen Victoria granted £10 to the Windsor unit to buy uniforms.
Today, there are 400 units across the UK, working with 14,000 young people. All units are part of the Sea Cadet Corps, which are governed by the Marine Society and Sea Cadets (MSSC). Its charitable status allows each unit to raise funds independently to meet running costs.
Only half the units have chaplains. The Revd Dr Andrew Schuman, Priest-in-Charge of St Christopher’s, Brislington, who was formerly an Assistant Curate at Christ the Servant, Stockwood, both in Bristol, has been a chaplain at the Bristol Knowle Unit for ten of his 11 years in the area.
He said: “Sea Cadets, like any organisation, has a number of good policies and protocols. The chaplain is often there for the gaps in real life that don’t seem to fit a policy.
“So, for the cadet wrestling with an issue at home, a volunteer finding a cadet difficult, right through to matters of life and death, the chaplain is there to support everyone.”
Dr Schuman, who is also the county chaplain for St John’s Ambulance, said that he could not imagine “not being involved” in his nearest units. “My chaplaincy is an integral part of my parish ministry, where it is very easy to spend all of life in church surrounded by church people. I love them, but I also need to get out into the world and meet other people, of all faiths and none.”
If you are interested in becoming a padre within the Sea Cadets, the MSSC suggests enquiring at your nearest unit or with any volunteers from your parish school. The Sea Cadets meet once or twice a week in the evenings. The attendance required of the chaplain is flexible.