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Helping those in need

Whatever happens, I look forward to spending more time helping people on and off the pitch.

Right now, my football team means everything to me. The team is made up of people that used to be homeless, recovering drug addicts, and people with other difficulties.

Three years ago, I don’t think any of us thought we would be playing football in Portugal. I certainly didn’t. But that is exactly what happened, and I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.

My name is Leah Parsons. I am 20 years old and I was born in Brighton, England. Growing up, I had some serious disagreements with my mother. When I was 14 years old, I left home for the first time. I returned but, at the age of 16, I left for good. It was very scary for me, but we agreed civilly and mutually that it was best for both of us.

From that point, I stayed wherever I could find a friendly roof.

That meant staying with friends a few nights a week, going to a host family from the local YMCA, or just finding an open park.

Brighton, in general, has a big and growing problem with homelessness. The community is doing great work to try to solve the issue. But the more opportunities that are created, the more homeless people from all over England come to Brighton.

When I was 17, my life took a bit of a turn. My boyfriend was involved with a program called Albion in the Community, which I understood delivered both football and life training. They had formed a Homeless FA Football Club that competed in the area once in a while.

I began to go and watch my boyfriend play, and I was quickly encouraged by the staff to join in the training exercises. After a short time, they invited me to join the football club full time and participate in the upcoming tournament. From that time on, Albion in the Community was a constant in my life.

I became a regular at their training programs and signed up for conversations with an Albion Goals Coach to help me through some of the issues I was dealing with. One of those issues was housing. My coach helped me move out of a bad living situation to a nicer apartment. When I was nervous to go to the sessions early on, my coach would drive to my apartment to pick me up and convince me to go.

During that first year or so, I focused on myself. I attended as many career development and sports leadership programmes as I could. I have a memory of one of my first programmes that I think about a lot. That day, I had to lead a football exercise for about 15 people all by myself.

I was terrified my first time, even telling the coach with me that I could not do it. But she encouraged me to keep going and told me to try my hardest. I did, and after three or four more of these sessions, I was looking forward to the next time I could lead the programme again.

After I had become comfortable in the program, the staff at Albion sat me down and we talked through some ways that I may be able to give back. It was there that I realised I had a very specific skill. When I got to Albion, one of the participants taught me sign language (over ping pong games!) which allowed me to help with the disability branch of the programme.. To this day, I help him with life skills, and he helps me with sign language. I would say it’s a fair trade.

I am extremely proud of how far I have come, but my favourite accomplishment is being selected to play for the English team in the Homeless FA Cup in Portugal. We placed third out 13 teams, which was amazing, but I was far happier that we won the fair play award. To me, that meant that win or lose, we were not only having fun, but we were making sure to always keep the competition at a friendly level.

Nowadays, I am focusing on receiving my Level Two British Sign Language Certificate. I want to be able to work more with the people in need with Albion and gain that very specific and useful skill.

Now that I have found work with Albion, I want to continue to grow and eventually become a large part of their work with disabled people. My dream is to be a disabilities sport coach.

I don’t know where my life path will take me, but I have learned to trust the people who care about me and to trust the process of life.

I know to follow what makes me happiest and to dedicate time to those things. Whatever happens, I look forward to spending more time helping people on and off the pitch.