‘Every week we run out of money and must make a miracle’: The sports charity helping disadvantaged Londoners

Sean Mendez, founder/CEO of Solidarity Sports (Lucy Young)
Sean Mendez, founder/CEO of Solidarity Sports (Lucy Young)

There comes a moment towards the end of the week when Jennifer and her husband and their two-year-old daughter run out of money. The 22-year-old mother makes the last of the cereal for breakfast and butters some toast which has to last her daughter Genesis all day.

Jennifer, who fled from El Salvador in May when her husband’s life was threatened by a gang and now relies on benefits of just £25 a week while their asylum claims are processed, said: “Every week we run out of food and every week I say to my husband we must make a miracle.

“We turn to a local food bank on a Friday but weekends are the hardest. We go to the park because it’s free. There is no other space to go, nothing else we can afford.”

Recently though, Jennifer found “a new space” run by Solidarity Sports which holds a weekly group in west London for under-fives and has been transformative. “We live in a depressing hotel room but at Solidarity Sports, I can change the environment and Genesis can mix with other children. When I go there, I bond with other mums. It’s like a second family and it lifts my spirits.”

Solidarity Sports is one of the charities eligible to benefit from our On the Breadline Christmas appeal in partnership with The Childhood Trust and Comic Relief. It helps 240 disadvantaged children a year, ranging from newborns to 16, and most of its activities involve after-school and holiday programmes.

CEO Sean Mendez, 42, described Solidarity Sports as “like a school that runs during school holidays”. He said: “We work with children facing poverty, neglect and trauma and give them happy memories. We take them on trips to adventure centres and parks and introduce them to trampolining, ice skating and bowling. We also do trips to Brighton, the Isle of Wight and Paris Disneyland.”

Mendez: ‘Many kids can’t see a future’ (Lucy Young)
Mendez: ‘Many kids can’t see a future’ (Lucy Young)

Mr Mendez added: “It’s not just parents being unable to afford food and energy bills, it’s the knock-on effect on stress and tensions in the household. The other day, I got some devastating news from a single mum with three children aged 3, 12 and 14 – her 12-year-old had been cutting herself and having suicidal thoughts. Until now, all the family’s resources had been going on their 14-year-old who has severe behavioural issues. This 12-year-old is the sweetest girl. It’s so sad. We are seeing the ages of children who are self-harming getting younger and younger. Many kids can’t see a future. And for their parents, there are feelings of failure at their inability to provide.”

Angela, not her real name, a single mother of four who grew up in Chelsea, is a case in point. The 40-year-old daughter of an Oxford graduate and restaurateur graduated from London Metropolitan University and did not imagine she would end up relying on universal credit. She was hoping to go back to work but an unexpected late pregnancy derailed those plans.

“Ten days before the end of the month I run out of cash,” she said. “That’s when I have to ask for help and turn to family and friends for basics like money for food. Before I was able to come out on universal credit but now with all the price rises it’s not possible. I used to be somebody who was independent and working and had the means to do things, but now I can’t and it makes me feel like such a failure.”

Mr Mendez worries about parents who can’t cope and how children can sometimes respond by blaming themselves or never demanding anything. “There was a child who came to our session and he was limping. I thought, has he fallen over and hurt himself? Turned out his trainers were so small, his toes were bulging out the front. He was eight years old and his mother couldn’t afford new shoes and he was trying to make do, but [he was] in a lot of pain. We bought him new trainers and he was smiling ear to ear.”

Solidarity Sports is increasingly also having to feed children. “We used to just provide snack top-ups but parents would provide lunch. Now many children arrive not having had breakfast and without a packed lunch and so we provide lunches for the whole holiday period. We can’t give a child a happy memory if their stomachs are empty.”

Mr Mendez said cost of living rises have led to a 50 per cent rise in demand for its services. “We get so many children referred by social services and other agencies but we can only take the most serious cases,” he said. “This Christmas we will be looking after 90 children, up from 50 last year. It’s the cost of living. It is having a devastating impact on our families.”


Our Christmas appeal in a nutshell

Our Cost of Living Christmas appeal, On the Breadline, has partnered with Comic Relief and The Childhood Trust, a charity that helps children in poverty in London.

Donations made into our partnership with The Childhood Trust will be given out in grants to organisations that help children in poverty in London.

Donations made into our partnership with Comic Relief will go to organisations across the UK (including London) helping people on the breadline of all ages cope with the cost of living.

How you can help

To help children affected by the cost of living crisis who live in London, donate here.

To help children and communities affected by the cost of living crisis wherever they live in the UK, donate here.