'I Am An Avid Evertonian And Would Do Anything For The Club'

To mark Volunteers' Week 2019, evertonfc.com will be shining a light on those whom without Everton in the Community would not be able to offer the life-changing, life-saving programmes they do. 

At present, the Club's official charity relies on the contribution of 240 volunteers, who between them completed 9,571 hours of voluntary service during the 2018-19 season, at a value of almost £80,000 when compared to the National Living Wage.

Find out more at evertonfc.com/volunteer

A football supporter’s story of becoming hooked on their club is a personal thing.

Rarely is one tale the same, albeit few recollections involve piggybacking on success.

For those wedded to a team, their attachment boasts more substance than the flimsy bond generated when a fan is simply seduced by silverware, sighted from afar.

James Pirie doesn’t remember Everton’s opponents, never mind the result, when he first accompanied dad Steven to Goodison Park.

Fifteen years later, though, Pirie effortlessly summons the image of Wayne Rooney bustling about the field. He couldn’t wait to return for more. Dad obliged, introducing Pirie to a world where the wide-eyed schoolboy marvelled at gifted midfielder Thomas Gravesen’s idiosyncratic brand of on-pitch cheerleading.

Pirie idolised Tim Cahill, too, and very quickly contracted the Everton bug.

Everton’s opening home game of 2019-20 will mark the onset of a 14th successive campaign of Pirie occupying his Season Ticket spec beside dad in Goodison’s Howard Kendall Gwladys Street End.

Football’s singular power includes its capacity to “divide”, accepts Pirie.

It is the only time in a 25-minute conversation he errs towards anything remotely negative.

And Pirie is promptly observing how “football can bring a family together”.

“It can be a father and son activity and a great way to spend time with my dad,” he continues.

“I am an avid Evertonian and would do anything for the Club.”

James Pirie is as good as his word.

In common with any number of graduates Pirie wanted to spend 12 months living on his terms after achieving a 2:1 in his English, Media & Cultural Studies degree at Liverpool’s John Moores University [JMU].

Pirie’s lifestyle of choice, however, struck an uncommon note.

Yes, he wanted to travel – and can now talk of visits to Berlin, Krakow and Prague.

Acquiring a driving licence was on Pirie’s to-do list. So, too, a part-time job to fund his year of discovery.

None of that, though – not earning a few quid stewarding events at the city’s M&S Bank Arena, nor learning to pilot a car, or time in a trio of Europe’s more fascinating cities – had a decisive say in Pirie’s future.

No, he was ultimately guided by his volunteering for Everton in the Community [EitC], weekly unpaid stints which were the vehicle for Pirie to “grow as a person”.

“Being an Evertonian I am exposed to all the great work EitC does, so when I decided to volunteer, it was the first place I looked,” says Pirie.

He signed up last May – Pirie barely out of university - to lend a hand on EitC’s Tackling the Blues [TtB] programme, a sports-based initiative targeting young people aged 8-14 experiencing, or are at risk of developing, mental health problems.

Every Monday of this school year has found Pirie giving up his day to volunteer in two schools: Crosby High School, a special educational needs [SEN] establishment for children aged 11-16, and St Philip’s CofE Primary School in Litherland.

“My interests were in teaching and education and I spoke with EitC’s volunteer manager, Adam Howard, about which programmes might accommodate that,” says Pirie.

“TtB sounded really intriguing and relevant.

“Mental health and well-being particularly interest me. I studied for an A’ Level in psychology.

“The topic is becoming more prevalent in modern society and TtB felt like a suitable programme for me to work on.

“I felt it would be very rewarding and enable me to gain some great experiences.

“And the primary objective for my ‘year out’ was to decide what I truly wanted to do and where my passions lay.”

The Gwladys Street inhabitant in Pirie does not try to disguise his glee when he reflects on refereeing youth football tournaments at USM Finch Farm and assisting with end-of-term Goodison tours for pupils.

“Those are unique opportunities and you won’t receive them from many charities,” says Pirie.

The deal works both ways. Pirie has poured himself into his voluntary assignment since shadowing TtB project co-ordinator Jack Mullineux prior to the 2018 school summer break.

He returned in September inspired by Mullineux and EitC’s assortment of mentors and resolved to enriching the lives of TtB’s young participants.

“I think I have gained Jack’s and the mentors’ trust and they know I am invested in the programme,” says Pirie.

“I enjoy coming in, I work very hard and take it seriously. I wish I could do more, to be honest.

“Volunteering has improved my understanding of what it is to work with young people and be in a school environment.

“And I’ve progressively been more actively involved. I design and lead sessions, and my skills and confidence have improved.

“With that leadership responsibility – when you deliver something and see people responding – you feel a greater sense of reward.”

Pirie is markedly comfortable in the classroom. At Crosby High he briskly established a rapport with pupils, who respond to the 21-year-old’s reassuring manner.

His calm-but-authoritative approach – less combustible Gravesen, more unflappable Leighton Baines – to overseeing a portion of a highly-charged physical activity session in Crosby, singles out Pirie as a natural.

“If it is a fun activity for a young group, or a funny story to use as a way of remembering something, and you see them laughing – you feel you have done something creative,” says Pirie.

“Or if you get an older class, or SEN group, opening up about their issues with things like social media, cyber bullying or mental illness – you feel you are helping. That you have given them something to go home with.

“They might think about something differently or feel more comfortable talking.

“This programme is educational experience but also something I feel very passionately about.

“It is an extremely relevant and a modern programme.

“You feel you are making a difference through what you say and deliver in the classroom or sports hall.”

Pirie is serious about ensuring his next step is correct and the decision consequently has many layers.

Without EitC’s intervention it is absolutely conceivable his energy, ideas and knowledge could all have been lost to the education world.

It is pertinent to mention here, then, that the Education Policy Institute heralded the dawn of this school year by warning of a “severe shortage” of teachers in England’s classrooms.

Pirie’s instinct was to pursue a career teaching English and he envisaged studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Education [PGCE] in the subject.

His initial attempts to explore the profession, however, ran into a brick wall.

“Education was my focus, even going into my degree,” says Pirie.

“Studying for an English PGCE would have been the natural progression afterwards.

“I found it hard to gain experience in the classroom, though – which would have helped confirm that was the route I wanted to follow.

“You contact schools and ask to come in for day or two, explain a bit about yourself, but they don’t really know you. They are busy and under a lot of pressure.

“Equally, the schools  teachers and pupils – embrace EitC’s presence.

“When you come in as a representative from Everton Football Club, people will always put their head up and pay attention.

“It is an hour in the day when the children have a fresh face talking to them.

“It is different and a change of pace in the day for teachers.

“There is a lot of pressure in the education system and exams are happening right now.

“We deliver sessions designed to engage and involve everybody.”

Pirie’s resourcefulness and adaptability were both tested by EitC from the outset.

He was invited to help administer sports sessions for youngsters, hosted at Cruyff Court Everton, the football facility attached to EitC’s People’s Hub in the vicinity of Goodison Park.

“It was my first volunteering day last May - an end-of-term session with groups from various schools,” says Pirie.

“I had to think on my feet a lot that day and I am really thankful that was the case.

“I was nervous. But having to be adaptable and design sessions and seeing the children responding – from that moment my confidence grew and I gained more understanding about working with young people.”

Tackling the Blues, operated in unison with Edge Hill University, delivers sessions in 14 schools each week.

It assists young carer groups and has ambitions to expand its reach.

Mullineux and the programme’s lead mentors, therefore, are keeping innumerable balls in the air.

Pirie is understandably thankful, then, for the effort invested in his evolution by TtB’s full-time cohort.

“They steadily integrate you and there is no pressure at all,” says Pirie.

“I worked with Jack from the start and watched how he and other mentors interacted and led sessions – and developed an appreciation of the purpose of the sessions.

“Even then, they tried to involve me, maybe five minutes at the start, or a fun game at the end.

“I can contact Jack any time – and he’s given me a few lifts while I do my driving lessons!

“I feel I can ask anything and draw on their greater experience.

“There is no question that volunteering with EitC is an excellent way to obtain transferrable skills for future employment.

“It boosts your confidence and your prospects.”

Pirie immediately grasped the value of TtB’s work.

He knows the statistic which shows one in four children in the UK will have suicidal thoughts.

Pirie is aware one in four people experience mental illness and 50 per cent of mental illnesses are established by the age of 14.

He understands TtB is immersed in potentially life-changing work.

“Exactly,” says Pirie, enthused.

“Mental illness can develop at a young age and you feel you are making a difference by raising awareness.

“Our sessions are not all formal and serious and uncomfortable.

“We try to engage in a laid-back manner, try to get the children involved and talking and thinking.

“It is relaxed but you feel they are gaining something. Everything is relevant to the modern age: we talk about emotions, for example, how social media influences your life, bullying and coping strategies.

“I always feel I am delivering something the children can respond to.

“And you are gaining the children’s trust, so if they do have a problem, they feel they can come and talk to you.

“Building those relationships is very rewarding, as well.

“I do feel I’ve grown as a person, for sure.

“I understand the issues different groups of young people could encounter – and how I might deal with those issues.

“I have a greater appreciation of how to help people manage different types of problems – which is a result of learning from Jack and TtB’s lead mentors.”

The upshot of his year with EitC is that Pirie will join a pioneering group studying on JMU’s first Criminology and Social Policy [C&SP] Master’s degree.

“My interest in working in education and with young people has been strengthened over the past year,” he says.

“My plan originally was to teach English.

“But working on TtB enabled me to realise how much I enjoy being in that type of programme, confronting serious issues and helping people.

“I learned through EitC that I had to teach in a subject area I was genuinely enthusiastic about – I want to pursue something for which I will have a love and passion.

“A lot of subjects covered on the C&SP Master’s relate to jobs that have recently come up with EitC.

“Working in deprived areas and helping those at risk of crime closely tie-in with issues EitC try to tackle.

“I have certainly been encouraged to go down this path because of the volunteering.”

Pirie will continue to put his hand up throughout the next school year.

His involvement with EitC, he concedes, might be more sporadic. He has a Master’s to fund and acquire, after all.

Pirie reverts to footballing lexicon as he scans the next 12 months.

“I want to stay on the books,” he says.

“I don’t think I will be able to do a full day, along with planning the sessions.

“But I will volunteer and help with events through the year.”

Not to mention making the trip with dad from home in Croxteth Park every other week to watch Everton.

James Pirie’s life is changing fast but some things will forever remain the same.

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