‘Every day I get to change someone’s life’

Mereside Youth Club.'Ged Sullivan.

Mereside Youth Club.'Ged Sullivan.

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Quick question. Name the man who’s dedicated the last 16 years of his life to working with young people in Blackpool and who has also starred in an Oscar winning film?

Actually that’s stretching it ever so slightly.

Jed Sullivan didn’t exactly have a major role in Chariots of Fire and he can’t spot himself in the film, but he knows he was there.

“The school I went to in the Wirral,” explains the Liverpudlian who has made the Fylde his home, “had a red shale running track and a wooden pavilion and they filmed all the Chariots of Fires scene there.

“They put all the kids in costume and we were part of the crowd. I watched the movie and was slightly disappointed that I couldn’t see myself but, hey, that’s not going to stop me saying I was in an film that won an Oscar!”

You could argue that the work Sullivan does is more important that anything to do with the Oscars.

Since blagging, as he puts it, a job with Blackpool’s youth service in 1999 (“they wanted someone who was really good with IT and could work with young people … I only had the IT bit but they said they’d take a punt on me”), he has been working 12 hours a day, six days a week, to help young people in the town.

He is most known for his work with Blackpool Boys and Girls Club, at their bases in Mereside and Layton.

Young people aged 7-24 pay 30p to come to the centre four nights a week. In return they get fed and a little stability in their lives.

“There’s an old saying that the man who enjoys his job never works a day in his life, and I have to say that I’ve never worked a day in my life since 1999,” said Sullivan.

“I love what I do and it is such a privilege. I am aware that every single day I get a chance to change someone’s life for the better.”

Sullivan is 41 but looks younger, surprising given that his job can’t exactly be stress-free.

He tends to deal with vulnerable young people from areas of Blackpool where there is deprivation and problems with issues like substance misuse and high levels of teenage pregnancies.

“It is sometimes tough because you often look at a kid and think ‘flipping heck, you have a real tough time’,” says Sullivan.

“Sometimes you think ‘I’d love to take this child home’. There have been times when I have marched to a child’s house and given the parents a rollicking and told them things are not good enough.

“But in general you just have to take a professional view on it because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to function properly.

“That’s not to say you’re not emotionally involved because you absolutely are, and quite right - you should be.

“But at the same time you have to be a realist and realise there is only so much you can do … but what you can do is really powerful and will make a difference.”

Sullivan says the difference between what he does and being a teacher is he doesn’t have to follow a national curriculum, he acts on a needs-led basis instead.

He cites an example of one project run by the Boys and Girls Club called Operation Spycatcher.

The young people worked through the night to crack a series of clues which ended with them climbing Clougha Pike at 5am and watching the sun come up.

“The idea was that it was the first time most of those kids will have seen the sunrise and that they’d remember it. And they did, it was great - years after they’d talk to me about it. They didn’t realise it then but it was a life changing moment,” he says, eyes lighting up at the memory.

“And that’s what we do - it is about education by stealth. When we take a kid up a mountain, we don’t do it to make them better mountaineers - what is important to us is the journey we take them on.

“My job is to take kids on journey’s every single day I come into work. My work luckily is in Blackpool and places like Grange Park and Mereside where the work is both appreciated and needed - more so now than ever.”

Sullivan talks about the difficult home lives that many young people in Blackpool have.

He says the job of the Boys and Girls Club is to be there for a child going through difficult times and support them in any way they can.

It would be easy for him to have a negative view of the resort given the problems he sees but he says it’s the opposite - what he witnesses, and the youngsters he comes into contact with, increases his strength of feeling for the town.

“Look, Blackpool is top of the pops for loads of things that are really quite negative,” he explains.

“There are some shocking statistics… if you’re white and a bloke and live in the centre of town you will die younger than you would do if you lived in Baghdad or Afghanistan. You can take a tram ride from Blackpool to Cleveleys and your life expectancy will go up by about 25 years in 15 minutes.

“There are loads of negative things that people can push at Blackpool but the fact is that the place has a spirit about it.

“And the thing that is really good about Blackpool - and this is some advice I was given on my first day on the job in 1999 - is that it is big enough to make a difference but small enough to care.

“Every day I spend here, I realise that even more. I’ve worked in Grange Park, Mereside, loads of different areas of high social deprivation and what’s great is how tight-knit the community is.

“The joke I always have is that if you kick someone in Grange Park, everybody will be limping for a couple of weeks after because everybody knows.

“And that is not a negative thing, it’s really positive because it means if there is ever an issue in the community, they come out and support each other. That’s something that doesn’t always happen in other areas.”

Since beginning work in Blackpool a decade and a half ago, Sullivan has co-founded Effective Pedagogy Solutions (an award-winning not-for-profit group employing young people in jobs for publicly funded organisations) and also become involved in politics, standing for Labour in Fylde at the general election.

He lost - not surprising given the Fylde is one of the truest Blue areas of them all - but has no regrets about giving it a go.

“The party normally parachutes someone in from outside the area to get blooded in the ways of campaigning, then they go off to a safer seat,” he says. “I thought sod that, it should be someone who knows the area and has an interest in it. So that’s why I did it - even though I knew it would be a thankless task.”

His long-term ambition is to help more young people in Blackpool, by opening a further Boys and Girls Club in the centre of town and to the north, “we can provide a service to young people that they’re not currently getting because authorities no longer have the money to do it”.

And if he does ever have doubts about the work he’s doing, it is the little things than make him realise it is completely worthwhile.

“It’s moments like when you’re walking 
through town and a man or woman will stop you and say ‘Hi Jed, do you remember me?’ and it’s a kid who you helped years ago,” he says.

“It is fantastic to see them on the straight and narrow, with a job, a car, and a family, and although you can never really prove it, you know you’ve played a major part in making sure that kid has turned out OK.

“That’s what I do it for and I can’t think of a better thing to do.”