Official Voice: Svenja Geissmar

Arsenal in the Community’s Drew Tyler in Za’atari
Arsenal in the Community’s Drew Tyler in Za’atari

In every issue of the matchday programme this season, we hear exclusively from a prominent member of the Arsenal family on our Official Voice pages. Recently our general counsel, Svenja Geissmar, who is chair of The Arsenal Foundation, talked us through the Foundation's remarkable journey over the past decade.

I joined Arsenal as general counsel in 2009. I was the first in-house lawyer at the club and my initial task was to look at all the legal work that was needed by the club and to start organising this in a strategic and cost-effective way. I’ve never looked back, with every day presenting us with highly varied and interesting challenges!

I’ve always been interested in social responsibility and as soon as I walked through the door I introduced myself to Alan Sefton and Freddie Hudson who headed up Arsenal in the Community, and went to visit some of the local projects, which I had heard from lots of people were very highly regarded. The long record of the club’s work in the local community was very inspiring to me.

At the same time, the club – through the Communications Department – had a 'charity of the season', providing comprehensive support to a specific charity over the course of the year. The club had worked with Nick Hornby’s charity, Treehouse Trust (now Ambitious About Autism), The Willow Foundation, CentrePoint, Great Ormond Street Hospital... and others. It was a fantastic venture, raising a considerable amount of money and profile for these charities. 

Around this time, we started discussing that we might want to look at having a longer-term relationship with one charity, so that we could grow a relationship and partnership where we could offer even more support than we did with charities over the course of just one year. We decided to look for a partner that worked both locally and globally because we wanted to reach out to communities around the globe, given we have fans all over the world.

In 2012 we created The Arsenal Foundation to become the home of the projects we wanted to do internationally. We thought long and hard about what we wanted the Foundation to do, which was really to continue and expand the work we were doing locally, because we knew that this was impactful and successful with many beneficiaries over many years – we had a fantastic template of how to do these things.

Looking around for an international charity to potentially partner with, we thought that Save The Children was a very good example of an organisation pursuing the sort of work we did with young people. In a different way and in a different context at times, but we would have a lot of synergies. So, we approached them and began working with them on some local projects and as that relationship grew we began to move into international work.

We partnered on a three-year education project in China, which was going into local schools and helping socially excluded young people in a very similar way to how we had helped children locally. We also partnered on football projects in Iraq and Indonesia, building pitches for young people to enable them to play football in areas with little recreational space. We also branched out into supporting international emergencies, for example the earthquake in Nepal in 2015 and the typhoon in the Philippines in 2013 – trying to help Save The Children wherever we could.

Through Arsenal in the Community, the club is so respected. Our staff working in Islington and beyond are recognised as a group of people who connect directly with our local community. Young people and adults can walk through our doors and find many, many different projects they can participate in, whether it’s a football project, or a cooking project, or learning English as a foreign language... there are so many different projects for different people.

People really trust that they are going to be in an environment with trusted adults where they can develop new skills and feel that sense of trust, of belonging, which translates all over the world throughout humanity. It’s a very basic human need and instinct and with Arsenal we try and make sure that everyone we work with in our local and global community feels that they are an important part of our family.

So when it came to The Arsenal Foundation wanting to do the same kind of work internationally, we knew we had long-held experience we could build on and we wanted to reach the people in the world who were facing the toughest of challenges.

Ambassador Ray Parlour with a participant in Jakarta

Ambassador Ray Parlour with a participant in Jakarta

That’s when we spoke with Save the Children about refugee communities and between us thought it could be impactful to work with these groups to support them to overcome the social, cultural and economic barriers they face in pursuing their life’s dreams. Together we decided to combine our skills through a football coaching project in which we focussed on both physical and mental resilience providing participants with a way to build skills they could use in everyday life. In 2018 we started this project called ‘Coaching for Life’ in a very poor area of Jakarta, Indonesia and in the Syrian refugee camp in Za’atari, Jordan. We wanted to see if our approach of training coaches from these communities could empower them to deliver impactful resilience based sessions, using football to drive change and create a sense of belonging for participants to the Arsenal family – exactly as we had done so successfully locally for many years.

In a sense we had trialled this kind of work locally with our Freedom From Torture group, who had suffered major trauma and we could already see that our approach worked. We brought people together through football, enabling people to reconnect with themselves initially, then with other people and the wider world. It was a football-based programme but we used a psychologist too and made really good progress with the people on the project. That gave us the confidence to think we could do this in other very challenging environments.

Save The Children could see the quality of that local work and knew that they could bring the psycho/social care element, as well as the understanding of the local environment and cultural challenges in places like Indonesia and Za’atari. For example the considerations around girls potentially not being encouraged or sometimes permitted to take part in these kind of projects. Together we could each bring our expertise to build a project that was really impactful. Not just creating a space to do physical activity but also a space where they could look at what’s happening to them emotionally, how they could learn about their emotions, manage them and improve their mental health. Our ‘Coaching For Life’ project has now reached almost 2,500 young people (both boys and girls) and has been hugely effective. As well as the positive responses from participants, we have also received rigorous evaluation from well renowned mental health experts who have endorsed the positive outcomes in both Za’atari and Indonesia.

The pandemic obviously created significant problems for the communities supported by The Foundation, locally and globally. We had to be agile in looking at our priorities in adjusting our projects for the best outcomes for our participants. We ‘course correct’ to make sure we have the most impact as do Save the Children, who are emergency responders, so it’s built into their DNA.

The pitches in Za’atari

The pitches in Za’atari

In the Za’atari refugee camp, we managed to adapt through outreach projects, setting the kids exercise programmes for example and most importantly not losing that connection to the programme itself and the trusted adults. Enabling the participants to maintain relationships and feel like they are part of a bigger community has been very important during the pandemic. Knowing that Arsenal and the wider world cared about them is something which mattered. We did lots of calls into the camp, involving players and other staff to speak to the children and hear about their experiences – there was a really lovely one with Bukayo for example, where he chatted to the children about working hard to achieve their dreams.

The local community – as it always is – was a big priority through the pandemic too. When Freddie spoke to our three local boroughs: Hackney, Camden and Islington they said food poverty was a real priority and we went on to supply over half a million meals over several months. We were helped with funding by Shkodran Mustafi, one of our great supporters Peter Olsen and Lesley Williams. It was one of the highest priority needs in the local community and we adapted quickly to that. It’s something we should be very proud of. When we look to the future, Covid has proved that the world is always changing, in so many ways – mental health is a greater challenge than it ever has been before and the refugee crisis is likely to get a lot worse, so we need to stay conscious of our local and global responsibilities and do whatever we can to reach out and provide support where we can.

But our focus for now is to continue with the projects and partners that we have invested a lot of time, expertise and experience with and to keep learning from them, what they need, and to continue to develop our own football and mental health offering. We want to be with these people long term. Freddie’s mantra is that this stuff only works if you do it over a long period. Short term projects are generally not as sustainably impactful. So, we want to continue with Coaching for Life, the Gunners Fund, Willow and Islington Giving to reach as many people as we can and to do it as effectively as we can.

The work the Foundation does is co-creative, we are learning as much from the people participating in our projects as they are learning from us. We constantly need to make sure we are delivering something that is appropriate culturally, socially, personally to individuals and that is a constant evolution of experience and expertise, collaboration, creativity... all these things.

There was a moment a few years ago that stood out for me as symbolic of what The Arsenal Foundation can achieve. When we first started the Freedom From Torture project, we had a session where a few of the guys told us how it had helped them. One of them said that he realised when he started on the football project that he still had arms and legs. He had become so disconnected from his physical body through torture that he’d forgotten that he had limbs and the first part of his journey was a reconnection to his own body. I just thought that was so heart-wrenching but such a clear, easy to understand example that this project was going to reconnect him to his own body, his own mind and then to other people – which is exactly what happened.

With all of our projects we will continue to open the door but it is really the participants that have the courage to step through the door and get what they can get out of our programmes. It’s so humbling to meet the people we work with on these projects. To hear them talk about Arsenal as ‘my home’ and ‘my family’, for us all to have that connection together, it’s absolutely incredible.

It’s all down to them and we’re incredibly privileged to see the extraordinary achievements they reach. Thank you to all of our participants for showing us what is possible in the toughest of circumstances if you really put your mind to it.

A profound thank you from me to all those of you out there who support The Arsenal Foundation. We really appreciate your donations and support and will continue to work hard to benefit young people across the globe.


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