How Manchester United are battling coronavirus - Notebook
"We've tried to act as quickly, as effectively, as efficiently as possible. We think the best way of getting to the most vulnerable children in our community is to go through the schools."
Last Updated: 05/05/20 5:33pm
Manchester United have been working hard to help the community during the coronavirus lockdown. Sky Sports News' North West reporter James Cooper has been speaking with the club's foundation to find out more.
John Shiels has worked for United for almost 40 years. So when the MUFC Foundation chief executive tells you he's never been more proud to be an employee, it means something. And you begin to understand the difference they are trying to make in the fight against coronavirus.
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The Foundation has been running for 13 years but its work stretches back further than that. It partners with 27 high schools and three special schools and John told me that straight away the priority for funding was the children who need it most.
"I think it's pretty challenging out there, things like energy bills, food. I hear stories where dads are eating one day and mums the next so that they've got food to feed their families.
"Most of the schools we work with have got online curriculums but most of the families we work with haven't got access to that.
"If they have, they might only have one device and they might have four or five children working on that one device.
"The areas we work in were challenging pre-covid. Now and afterwards it's going to take a lot of building to get back.
"We've tried to act as quickly, as effectively, as efficiently as possible. We think the best way of getting to the most vulnerable children in our community is to go through the schools.
"We have amazing relationships with all our schools, we have an officer in each school for a minimum of three years, but there's no one who knows their community better than the schools, so that's what we decided to do, go to each school and give them a family support grant."
The grants add up to £300,000 of extra funding, with the schools themselves deciding how best that money should be spent.
John said: "What we've said to the head teachers is: 'You know how best to spend the money we're giving you'.
"For example, we work with a little wheelchair-bound lad who likes nothing more than going and sitting on the front bench in his garden. Someone took the bench, so we're now working with our Group Property Services so we can make a bench that won't be taken again.
"We also help an older boy with autism who loves magic. What we're going to do is give him some virtual magic lessons and then he's going to come and perform for the kids when they come back after closure.
"But for our mainstream schools the needs are more basic than that, it's more human need."
This latest donation follows swiftly on from a pledge by United to deliver 60,000 meals to NHS carers and front-line staff, an effort that's seen 80 volunteers prepping, cooking and delivering the food.
As John himself says, football is important in people's lives but the focus has shifted in the past few weeks.
The lockdown has also seen a transformation at Old Trafford, particularly on a Thursday evening when the stadium is bathed in blue with the letters NHS illuminated as a tribute, an idea that sprung up from an unexpected source.
"That came through one of the think-tanks," says Shiel. "Actually it was the head of our Group Property Services who came up with idea. It's genius isn't it?"
"It was fantastic and one of those 'eureka' moments, but it's not just flash, bang, wallop, it's backed up with purpose.
"I think we've demonstrated we're in it for all the right reasons and that image of Old Trafford must have gone around the world. It's the power of the club I suppose and it's 'How do we use that power in the right way?'"
The "power" John talks about is wielded by 70 full-time members of staff at the Manchester United Foundation, none of whom have been furloughed, backed up by around 70 or so part-timers.
Now into his fifth decade working at Old Trafford, Shiels and his team are more than aware of the responsibility that comes with wearing the same badge as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players and the spotlight that inevitably brings.
But he's also quick to point out that although Manchester United and its Foundation have reacted swiftly and decisively in the face of an unprecedented challenge, they're certainly not working in isolation.
"As Manchester United we're always prominent in the community but that's not what gains the headlines," Shiels adds.
"We just keep doing what we're doing, we're there 365 days a year, we're there forever and we say that to the children we work with.
"We tell them that once they're with us we'll bring them through and always come back, but that's not what makes the headlines and it's nice now that people are looking at different ways of demonstrating what sport and in particular for us, football can do.
"But it's not just Manchester United. We need to big-up what all the sporting organisations do, because it's not just around covid and headline stuff, it's when it's cold and it's wet and it's dark and it's dingy, we go into those areas and we try to make a difference."