Banjo was working as a fitness instructor and football coach when Covid first struck. Overnight, gyms closed and he lost his source of income. He explains how an introduction from the St Matthew’s project led him to a new job and to becoming an integral part of Lambeth’s pandemic relief effort, getting food to the borough’s most vulnerable residents.
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My story starts the week the first lockdown was announced. At the time I was working as a fitness and children’s activity instructor at Brixton Recreation Centre. On Saturdays I was a football coach for under 10s at The St Matthew’s Project.
It was a crazy time – there was panic in the air. Everyone was wondering what was going to happen and what they were going to do for work. I hadn’t lost my job, but the gym was closed so I couldn’t do any shifts, which meant I couldn’t earn. I thought, what am I going to do?
Immediately I started applying for jobs. I must have applied for 50 in the first couple of weeks. I was trying everything – porter jobs, warehouse jobs, supermarkets, whatever was out there. It was tough, and mostly I didn’t hear anything back, other than a few rejections.
After a few weeks I thought, I can’t do this anymore, I need to be productive, I need to feel like I’m contributing.
I still had my coaching job at The St Matthew’s Project, and it was Lee, who runs both the charity and the football club, who told me about a voluntary scheme going on at the Recreation Centre. I was surprised because I thought the building was closed!
He made an introduction and I went in to see what was going on. It was incredible – the council and a charity called The Healthy Living Platform had turned the place into a massive emergency food hub. It was set up to help all the people who had to shield, who were old or vulnerable, or who just couldn’t afford to shop for their weekly needs. I looked at what was happening and I thought, I’m not doing anything – I might as well volunteer.
At first I was cleaning crates. I’d clean about 5-700 of them a day. They’d go out and come back in and they’d need to be disinfected every time. I’d be there every day from 8 or 9am and be there until 5 or 6pm. After the first week, I got offered a job – they said they wanted to pay me because I was so focused on what I was doing. I was like ok, yes please!
I started by cleaning and doing manual labour, but soon I was doing a bit of everything – picking out supplies, keeping track of what we were giving out, making sure we’d delivered to everyone we should have. We had tinned food, but also fresh fruit and veg, and we even made ready meals for people who couldn’t cook.
The Healthy Living Platform had created a database that we’d check. Some deliveries were going out to individual people, some were going out in bulk to places like youth centres.
At the peak we had maybe 50-60 people working there every day. 90% were volunteers, people just coming in, doing their bit, trying to make sure everybody’s ok. It felt really good to be part of it. We were helping thousands of people.
Sometimes the cyclists who were doing deliveries said they felt sorry for us because nobody knew what we were doing, hidden away in a sports centre. They were getting all the plaudits! To be honest, it just made me feel grateful – grateful for what I have, grateful to be working. Because a large proportion of this country are really struggling.
Things got even more intense when I’d been there for about a month. One of the jobs I’d applied for at the beginning got back to me and asked if I was still interested. It was in an ambulance station, disinfecting and restocking ambulances. I needed the income, so I said yes, and I started working there as well.
I had to learn how ambulances get stocked up so the paramedics would have what they needed – making sure the oxygen cylinders were replaced and ensuring the infectious bags, trauma kits and primary response bags were all checked and ready to be used.
I was there for two months, doing both jobs, at the Rec in the daytime then doing night shifts at the ambulance station. Those night shifts were about 10/11 hours, so the only time I got a full day’s sleep was on a Sunday. Then I was back at the Rec on a Monday. You can imagine how tired I was – I still don’t know how I coped with it!
I’m proud of what I did at the ambulance station, but I was relieved when the job ended, to be honest. Then I was back to just working on the food deliveries. That, and coaching the kids on Saturdays.
Coaching is my passion. It’s coming up to two years since I started working with the St Matthew’s Project. I got introduced to Lee, volunteered, and he saw my hunger and wanted me to step up and become an actual coach. I got my level one coaching badge through volunteering for the community project and the football project. Then they offered me a job and got me onto level two straight away.
Now I’ve been asked to coach a new crop of under 10 players that are coming through, which is a big thing to take on. St Matthew’s Project is not just about football, we’re a community, a voice for the voiceless and, most importantly, a family – and we have to treat each other as such. That’s something I’ve really bought into, so I teach my kids about football, but some life lessons as well.
I finish working at the food hub soon, and I’m not too sure what I’ll be doing after that. Hopefully I’ll be going back to work in the Rec in my old job, working with the kids in the gym. I haven’t seen them in a while! But if we can’t open up yet, I’ll have to look for something else.
Before this pandemic, finding employment was already hard – but now it’s just intensified. It’s tough right now for young people, and I’ve been more fortunate than most.
I believe I will find something. My aim is to get all my coaching badges and gain more experience. One day I’d like to get the opportunity to coach in another country. That’s the dream.
Interview by James Hopkirk