Ever thought of volunteering in Africa? Let two former Ipswich Town favourites persuade you to go to Ghana
- Credit: Archant
Simon Milton spent 30 years at Ipswich Town, first as a player and more recently as the Director of Academy Sales. He tells STUART WATSON about how his Futurestars charity is making a difference in west Africa and how another worthy project out there has been saved during the coronavirus pandemic.
At a time when positive news is at a premium, Simon Milton is keen to share some.
The former Ipswich Town midfielder – who spent three decades at the club, both as a player and in various off-field roles – has spent the last three years managing an education-through-sports programme called Futurestars in the west African nations of Ghana and Togo.
Supplying sports coaches to five different schools which educate 4,000 children, the worthy project has reduced truancy levels, played its part in improving some dilapidated facilities, set up organised leagues and unearthed some footballing talent.
The global coronavirus pandemic may have shut down schools and work there, but Futurestars remains well supported by the large corporate donors who fund the charity. Other projects in the area weren’t so fortunate though.
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“The story behind Akwaaba is that a young lady called Jordan (Palmer) went out to Ghana to be a volunteer a few years ago, fell in love with the country, met her boyfriend King (Boateng) and they decided to set up their own charity,” explains Milton.
“They’ve got a house which can accommodate up to 20 people at any one time – four bunk beds in a room, each of which has an en suite. It’s fairly basic.
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“They get people coming from all over the world to stay. For £250 a week, those volunteers get accommodation, three meals a day and the opportunity to put their skills to use in an environment that really needs them. For example, you get medical students placed at the local hospital or people from education or sports backgrounds put in schools. It’s a great experience they wouldn’t get here and it enhances their CV.
“We’ve got to know Jordan and King over the years and have sent a lot of volunteers from Ipswich and Suffolk to stay with them.
“The problem is that, with the travel ban, it could be at least six months before they can welcome their next group of volunteers. Obviously, like everyone else in shut-down, their costs have gone down. They just needed some funds to cover the rent of the property, as well as electricity, water, food etc.
“It was so important to me to save these guys so I contacted 16 people who have all experienced what it’s like out there and asked them if, like me, they would donate £50 a month over the next six months. They all agreed and so that was the charity instantly saved.
“But then it became clear that more people wanted to donate. We set up a donation page and that’s already reached £2,500. The target is £10,000. If we reach that then Akwaaba will not only be saved, but also able to really grow.”
There are strong Suffolk links to the projects. Milton ended up going down this career route after being approached by Ipswich Town fan Gary Miller, the chairman of African shipping company OMA Group, to help him fulfil his corporate social responsibility.
Suffolk New College have become a Futurestars volunteer partner this year, while Copleston School are donating hundreds of books after downsizing their library by 70%. In addition, former Ipswich Town defender Titus Bramble is heavily involved.
“Simon asked me to go out there with him in 2016,” explains the Blues academy coach. “When I first got there I saw how amazing the people are. They don’t have much at all, but they’re such smiley people who are so positive about life. The place and the people just grew and grew on me. Now I go out about six or seven times a year.
“I love coaching the kids there. There’s a lot of raw talent and they’re all really desperate to learn and get better. I think they see it as a meal ticket, a way to get out of the country and a way to provide for their family.
“Each and every one of them are so driven, so disciplined and just really, really love the game. That’s not something that can be said for every kid playing football over here that I’ve coached. Some kids want the lifestyle, but don’t love the game. Not all of them, that would do many a dishonour, but certainly some. I wonder how many of them are off down the park playing football with their mates in their spare time whereas in Ghana they find anything they can kick around and play on any surface.”
On the work Akwaaba are doing, Bramble said: “They are just a young couple – great people doing great things. I can’t speak highly enough of their project.
“If people get chance to volunteer with them then I definitely would recommend it. You can go over there and work in a hospital, work as a vet, work as a dentist. It will be an experience you’ll look back on and think ‘wow, that was amazing’. You’ll come back here and really appreciate what you have got rather than focusing on what you don’t.”
Leo Draude, a 23-year-old from Ipswich, is among the many who have volunteered with Akwaaba. He said: “I’m a big Ipswich Town fan, so Simon and Titus’ involvement made me choose to go over to Ghana and volunteer with Akwaaba. I went for a month after I graduated at Reading University last summer and absolutely loved it.
“I was a little apprehensive at first, but Jordan and King make you feel part of the family with how they look after you from start to finish. I was greeted at the airport and it instantly became a home from home.
“Using my experience of grassroots football coaching I was able to put on some sessions at the schools. At the weekends you can go on organised trips to waterfalls, climb mountains, see monkeys and elephants.
“The culture was amazing. There’s so much dancing, vibrancy, just pure happiness. All the kids come running up to you and give warm hugs. It was kind of life changing, really quite powerful. You come home so grateful for what you have.
“If anyone is thinking of doing something like this, I’d say to them ‘just do it’.”
Milton, as anyone who has met him will testify, can be a force of nature. An exponent of positive mental attitude, that mindset can be infectious.
“Something good has got to come out of all of this,” he said, speaking during lock down. “I truly believe it could leave everyone looking at themselves a lot more.
“It’s important to say this is not me trying to get people who have never been to Africa donating money. I am fully aware there are money worries for many right now and I don’t want people thinking ‘what on earth is he doing starting a fund-raising campaign at this time?’ I just wanted to spread some awareness of what Futurestars and Akwaaba do.
“This just felt like a really positive story at a time when people need some positivity.”