Unity Gym: The project working to improve young lives in Sheffield

The Unity Gym occupies a nondescript, unassuming building in the city centre area of Broomhall. The only signal to passers-by of its existence is a small sign above the front door which could easily be overlooked.

Once inside, however, the atmosphere is far from quiet. Loud music plays unapologetically from the speakers and young clients call to each other from across the room, comparing training techniques and exchanging warm-hearted jokes.

It is a great atmosphere and it is easy to see why it is such a popular place for young people to come, to seek support and relaxation.

This month, The Unity Gym project was selected as Charity of the Month by Tickets for Good, meaning that the project will receive a portion of each ticket sale from the website. They are hoping the donations will enable them to carry out more of the vital mentoring and support services they provide to young people.

Amid increased cuts to youth services and growing concerns about the rise in youth crime, Saeed Brasab, director of the Unity Gym Project, said maintaining services like Unity Gym through charitable fundraising and donations is crucial.

“What we are seeing is, particularly around the issue of youth violence and knife crime, that young people are in more need of support, particularly as a way of being in a safe space, a nurturing space, to get the support they need,” he said.

The mentoring services they offer are tailored to people who may be on the cusp of inter-criminality or those who may be at risk of drifting into patterns of antisocial behaviour.

In addition to mentoring young people, throughout the darker winter months Unity Gym will carry out more outreach work, to connect with young people and their families in the community.

While trying to prevent young people from committing crime, Unity Gym also recognises that there may be young people who may just need some support and someone to talk to.

Speaking on the services they offer, Mr Brasab said: “It allows us to give young people the time and the space to work with them, but ultimately to see the potential in them and also for them to recognise they have potential in themselves”

Yussuf Rivers, 16, is a regular client at the gym. He stressed the project’s importance to the local community and its role in keeping young people in the area out of trouble.

“It’s taking people my age, especially during the school holidays and there’s no school, there’s nothing to do all the days, so it’s taking us off the streets and maybe straying down the wrong path,” he said.

As well as focussing on their core youth work services, the Unity Gym has been collaborating with a variety of different partners, including the University of Sheffield.

After speaking with young people about their concerns, and the direction of travel that they would like the gym to take, the project has collaborated the University of Sheffield to submit funding bids for future projects.

Will Mason, a volunteer at the gym and one of the lead collaborators on this work, said that one of the issues raised by young people was the need for mediated spaces for inter-generational dialogue. They wanted to have a place for young people and parents to talk about some of the issues that happen in the area.

For the area of Broomhall, dealing with the issue of youth violence and knife crime is a core part of these conversations.

If successful, the bid money will fund a series of workshops that will be delivered to both young people and parents from different neighbourhoods to address some of the issues that have been raised.

For Mr Mason, engaging the younger generations in these conversations is a crucial part of improving these services.

He said: “Young people are the people who are the most at risk and are experiencing that risk on an everyday basis, so they’re in many ways best positioned to tell about what’s like and what’s lacking.

“From our experience with talking to young people, they bring ideas to the table that we wouldn’t have necessarily come up with because of the lived experience they have.”

These young people aren’t solely concerned with themselves, either. Many have expressed concerns for their younger siblings and cousins and the different supports they’d like to see made available for the younger generations.

Despite the success of donation programmes and funding grants, Mr Mason says there is a constant worry that hangs over projects such as Unity Gym.

Cuts have disproportionately affected the most deprived communities across the country and services such as youth work and family support services.

While grants and donations provide a temporary respite, singular payments and time limited grants do not provide a sustainable model for future growth.

Mr Mason said: “For us it’s a problem, because it constantly means we are working on a shoe string budget. It means that, for example, to run inter-generational dialogue workshops we have to apply for project funding and we may or may not get that funding.

“So the money isn’t simply there for us to do the work that we know we need to do.”

Looking to the future, the main focus for the project is ensuring that its doors remain open to support young people in the future.

“We’re a charity that’s really passionate about not just seeing the work we do in terms of community development, but also seeing young people improve,” said Mr Brasab.