Luke Howard has worked at the club for 11 years, having started as a volunteer on our gap year programme. He tells us all about his current role as accessibility co-ordinator for our community department, and the wide-ranging programmes with which he is involved.
I grew up in Archway. My parents weren’t big on football at all back then, but they’re now season ticket holders! Anyway, a friend of the family had a membership and asked if I wanted to go to a match. That was in December 1997, a 3-1 home defeat against Blackburn Rovers.
Before long, my bedroom resembled that famous picture of Carl Jenkinson’s, complete with Arsenal bedspread. I can still remember sitting in the West Stand and I have vague memories of going to the parade at the end of that season too.
I’d always wanted to work at Arsenal but I had no real awareness of everything the club does. I found out there were voluntary positions at the club and, after applying, I was selected to coach on the Arsenal Gap Year Programme, which really opened my eyes to the multitude of ways in which the club works with the Arsenal community – locally and overseas. After six months on a domestic programme, the club sent me out to Barbados for nine weeks, where I coached young kids.
"You quickly realise that interactions from 30 years ago are remembered by people for their whole lives"
Looking back now, Arsenal put so much trust in me. I’ve been here for 11 years since and it’s still quite mind-blowing to me that the club invested as much as they did in me. Arsenal in the Community has existed since the 1980s, and you can often plot the impact it’s had on people’s lives.
When we speak to parents of children involved in schemes we run, they’ll ask how certain staff members are. It’s not unusual to have people come over and go ‘Is AZ still at the club?’ Or ‘how’s Freddie getting on?’ You quickly realise that interactions from 30 years ago are remembered by people for their whole lives.
Locally, we put a lot of importance on what we can do to give back. On matchdays, Arsenal pretty much take over the borough. The belief, the desire to help the local community wherever possible is ingrained in our values.
Nowadays, my role as accessibility coordinator encompasses a variety of projects. A big part of my job is looking at those who perhaps aren’t engaged by existing programmes we’ve set up. That could be for social reasons or due to learning or physical needs.
We have a cohort of young people with Down syndrome, for whom we now run a bespoke programme in collaboration with a local organisation called North London United, who we’ve worked with for close to 10 years. A parent of a young child with Down syndrome started it off their own back. As a club, we saw the value in it but most importantly, we saw that the parent had established it themselves.
We agreed to provide staff, pay for the venue and remove any concerns around sustainability. We run the programme in partnership with the parent now. They rely on volunteers, people who give up their time for free and who bring so much passion.
We don’t try to claim ownership all the time. It’s not about creating a nice piece to camera. It’s about running programmes in as sustainable a way as we can while benefitting as many people as possible. The whole club really back our projects – and that’s crucial. For example, during Carl Jenkinson’s time here, we took some of the participants from our North London United project to meet him at the training ground.
"Arsenal is more than just an employer for me"
Carl left Arsenal but stayed in touch – in fact, when he came home from Australia recently, he brought his parents to a session because he wanted to show them how proud he was of the project. That’s really affirming. Leah Williamson is the same – she’ll come to us and find out how she can support our groups.
We really saw the value of the support provided to Arsenal in the Community during the pandemic. A lot of the local mental health services had seen their staff deployed to physical wards, because that’s where the urgent need was.
Their workload hadn’t shifted – they were having to come in physically but were then taking on extra responsibilities including medication drops and the sourcing and distribution of food from food banks. Within days, my manager was able to get approval from the club for myself and my colleague, Anthony, to pick staff up, drop them to and from work and work alongside food banks.
Arsenal is more than just an employer for me. What I found affirming during lockdown was the club’s willingness for us to go and help out. It gave me purpose during a time where I felt quite lost. The club back us wholeheartedly and that’s huge.
It was the same after the tragic Grenfell Tower fire. The club gave a lot of resources to be redistributed to the local area – but also helped with individual cases. A good friend of mine, Paul, lost all his historic Arsenal collection in the fire. The club helped him to find as much like-for-like memorabilia as possible and also took a group who lived in the tower up to London Colney to meet the men’s first-team squad.
I remember arriving at work the morning after the fire and the department were immediately across sending whoever was free to help in any way possible. Our Stadium Management team instantly sourced towels and non-perishable food for us to take across London. More recently, the club donated more than 4,000 items for us to deliver to those affected by the conflict in Ukraine. In those situations, everyone at Arsenal goes out of their way to help.
"We’ve had parents crying happy tears because they never thought they’d be able to take their child to a match"
Another example of that was with the introduction of our sensory room. I had been to the Invictus Games, where a family called the Shippeys presented their petition to bring in support for autistic children attending matches at Sunderland. With the help of Sunderland, they developed an area of the stadium which was supportive of their child’s sensory needs and helped with anxiety reduction.
After listening to the presentation, I spoke to Stadium Management, who had already been looking at bringing in a similar area at Emirates Stadium. There was a real desire from the club to implement the room in the very best possible way. We weren’t replicating a model we’d seen elsewhere as such. We knew Sunderland had brought in a room but the club wanted us to start from fresh and build it our way. We spoke to families and used their feedback to amend the process.
The sensory room has had a real impact – we’ve had parents crying happy tears because they never thought they’d be able to take their child to a match. When you’re immersed in football, you can take for granted just how important that first moment of support is. Sometimes you don’t realise your privilege until you watch a match with a family who let you know just how valuable it is to have a safe space to watch the game.
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