For Ashlea McFarlane, life changed when she enrolled at the Everton Free School.
Ashlea admits she struggled in mainstream education, with anxiety issues prohibiting her from realising her potential.
The Everton Free School, which offers alternative educational opportunities and experiences for young people, offered the ideal environment for her to flourish.
The wraparound support and encouragement provided by the school on Spellow Lane, close to Goodison Park, has seen Ashlea develop her confidence and skill-set to the degree she now works as a successful boxing coach at former Commonwealth champion Derry Mathews’ gym, as well as at the Everton in the Community Youth Zone.
Key to her development, Ashlea explains, is the support received from her Free School mentor, Stephen Wynne.
“I just knew I could speak to him about everything,” says Ashlea, a lifelong Evertonian.
“If I had a problem or I was worried about something, even not wanting to go to lessons, he would talk to me, calm me down and I’d be fine. I could approach him with anything.
“He was my mentor from day one and all the way through. And even though I’ve left, when I talk about him people say, ‘Who’s Ste?’ and I go, ‘He’s my mentor!’.
“Everything changed for me when I went to the Free School.
“Without it, I would never have gone to school properly, I would never have done my GCSEs. I would probably never have got my apprenticeship with Derry, I wouldn’t have been doing all my voluntary work I’ve done with Everton in the Community. Without Ste and the Free School supporting me, I don’t know where I would be now.”
Stephen was a promising young player at Everton’s Academy, where he spent seven years before enjoying a spell in non-league football.
Thanks to the qualifications he earned during his time at the Blues’ Academy, he was able to go to college and secure a place at university, where he studied sport and education.
He returned to Everton to work for the Club’s Free School, where he first met Ashlea, and is now a support worker on EitC’s Breathing Space programme.
Stephen cannot suppress a smile when discusses of Ashlea’s progress, visibly beaming as he reveals pride in how far she has come.
“When she first came to the school, she was quiet and reserved,” he says. “We gave her a platform to be herself, and she has come out of her shell and transformed.
“For her not to like interacting people to running circuit training sessions in the gym, it is phenomenal, really. It’s quite interesting, because I come to her sessions, and while sometimes I had to tell her off in school, now she’s telling me off! She gets her own back!
“I feel really proud of her, though. I think she’s got a lot of character about her and that’s want we want to harness.
“To see everything come to fruition when you’re working with young people - that’s the golddust of what we do.”
Former British, Commonwealth and interim WBA interim lightweight boxing champion Mathews explains how he has also witnessed Ashlea's self-esteem and character develop since he first offered her an apprenticeship.
He says Ashlea's determination, personality and coaching ability makes her a valuable asset for his gym.
"If she came out of her shell – I knew she would be a successful coach and that’s what she has been doing the past couple of years," he said. "She has gone on to good things and long may it continue. I’ve seen her become more confident, taking over and basically running the place when I had to go to training camps.
"She was the boss, she was the gaffer. She was ordering people about, and that’s what a gym needs, good characters. She’s a good role model for the up and coming kids for the future."
Watch Ashlea's story in full by clicking on the video above. Users of the Everton app can navigate via the 'Video' section.