Tom Drake’s voice breaks with emotion when he recalls those challenging first few days of the Covid-19 lockdown. He also remembers one of his first calls that March day was to Preston North End boss Alex Neil.
“I said to him that we wanted to deliver food hampers to the needy people in the city,” says Drake, North End’s Community and Education chief. “People were in desperate financial difficulties, because of the impact of the pandemic and we should be doing something to prevent that happening and provide that crucial support.
“We are a community club in the sense that the players are so heavily involved with everything we do. The manager and his staff wanted to help straightaway and that was brilliant.”
By the following day there was £7,500 in the Helping Hampers fighting fund and the generosity shone through in the darkest of times.
With valuable contributions from local business and loyal North End supporters, it launched a vital food provision, feeding many elderly and vulnerable people unable to leave their homes due to the national emergency.
“It was an unbelievable achievement, but there’s a lot of community goodwill in Preston, and it is important to highlight that there are many local charities doing some brilliant work. People were kind and supportive, and I remember one little lad, aged eight, who did laps of his garden to raise money to buy hampers.”
It is no wonder then Drake calls the Community and Education Trust (CET), the official charity arm of the club, a hidden gem. But it is Deepdale’s jewel in the crown now as his staff became crucial key workers delivering food parcels at the height of the pandemic.
“For the staff there was joy, but some sadness too and a lot of them were very emotional when they came back,” says Drake. “It was very challenging because it really hits home when you confront poverty and loss.”Many families, says Drake, were stricken by poverty and struggling to make ends meet. One, a single parent, lived with three children in a tiny bedsit in the city centre.
“The poor children just had the clothes they were wearing and no others,” he says. “As a parent, then that really did pull on the heartstrings. They didn’t have a penny, and it was devastating to see that level of poverty.”
But the PNE Community staff dug deep again, collecting a bumper selection of toys and clothes for the needy family. Drake says: “The parent opened the door and was in tears when they saw what they had brought for the kids. It was a huge positive that our staff wanted to go above and beyond the call of duty to help.”
However, it was not just about a one-off visit with a food parcel, they forged a strong personal connection too.
“They followed it up with calls, and one of our girls delivered a bunch flowers to a lady, a big PNE fan, who had recently lost her husband. It was about making sure that they had a wrap-a-round support and what they did was valuable and rewarding work in the community to help people’s well-being in a time of great crisis.”
And when communities across the country stepped up to provide free half-term school meals to children after a campaign by Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, Drake and his team swung into action.
“It was not nice to see, parents not able to feed their children,” says Drake. “There was a long queue outside Deepdale, and it was about providing that network of support to disadvantaged people who needed it.
“One lady was struggling herself, but she just wanted to provide for her kids. We asked her if she was okay but her only concern was her children. The Schools Council got in touch and said they would get the message out and donated £500, while local business and Morrison’s supermarket contributed food. Over a couple of days, we handed out hundreds of free packed lunches.”
A year ago, 300 slept out at Deepdale on a bitterly cold November night, as part of the CET’s efforts to combat homelessness and rough sleeping in the city. The Big Sleep Out sponsors and donors raised £100,000, helping the Foxton Centre, a charity offering support to vulnerable adults in Preston, to buy and renovate a house for homeless people.
Preston North End striker Louis Moult championed the cause after losing his mum to alcoholism aged 15. North End boss Alex Neil took a keen interest also, and he was visibly moved by a visit to the homeless refuge.
Moult, who was awarded the Professional Footballers’ Association Community Champion prize, recalled his first visit to the Foxton Centre.
The North End striker says: “I went there with an open mind and I got talking to a lady in her forties, an alcoholic. I could see she was struggling with addiction and I felt deeply sorry for her. Her hands were shaking, she had bloodshot eyes and jaundiced cheeks. Then it all came flooding back and I became quite emotional. Suddenly, I was just looking straight at my mum.
“For a while I was reluctant to tell my story, but the reaction when I spoke out was overwhelming. I want to thank all the people who have contributed towards buying a house for the homeless in Preston.”
Drake said it was a great honour for the CET to partner the Big Sleep Out and that the new property would change the lives of many rough sleepers in Preston. Drake says: “When you visit the Foxton Centre it is right in your face – there’s no rosy picture. There’s people there with really complex issues, addiction and mental health, but they are in the right place with the right support to aid their rehabilitation.”
Their cause could not have a finer ambassador than Moult. “Using his journey in life, Louis has made a massive impact to encourage people to get involved in helping the homeless and we are so proud to support the Foxton Centre,” adds Drake.
When you thumb through the CET’s annual report there’s a blizzard of dazzling ideas, initiatives and courses for every generation.
Last year, the PNE Community Trust delivered 26 projects, for programmes aiding the physical, mental and emotional health of people, as well as providing a wealth of social benefits and further education.
For example, hundreds of children completed the healthy eating and lifestyle programme, while eight mental health patients gained a sports coaching qualification. However, when Drake took the helm 12 months ago, he could never have imagined the challenge that awaited him in 2020.
“Together, we’ve changed the working culture of the Community and Education Trust and every day I say to them: ‘We are a young team, so let’s work young.’ “e are an extremely passionate and energetic team but winning the Community Club of the Season is recognition for all their incredible work. When I came here, the Community Trust corridors had photographs of PNE players scoring goals, or making a save.
“That’s fine, celebrating the history of this famous club, but it had no real identity for the staff who worked here. Now, there’s photographs, murals and pin boards celebrating the Community and Education Trust’s many initiatives and successes, and images of the people we’ve hopefully helped and inspired. I want to keep shining this hidden gem so that everybody knows about us.”
The PFA's director of corporate social responsibility, John Hudson, praised Preston North End’s Community and Education Trust and believes they are a shining example of how to engage with a local community.
The Trust landed the Community Club of the Season prize at the North West Football Awards, in association with the Professional Footballers’ Association.
Hudson, the PFA Director of Corporate Social Responsibility, said: “They’ve shown through their tireless work, providing hundreds of free food hampers during the pandemic to needy and vulnerable people in Preston, that the Trust has made a huge difference to people’s lives. It is a very well run and extremely valued part of Preston’s community, and they should be very proud indeed.”
Hudson, who announced Preston as the winner, added: “They have also continued to support vulnerable people through their many projects, including Sporting Memories and Dementia, Walking Football and by helping the homeless via Deepdale’s Big Sleep Out which proved to be a tremendous success.
“They have fantastic support from Preston North End and have developed and worked with many local partners, adding value and authenticity to the work they deliver.”