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The healing power of sport

Grahame Paterson
Grahame Paterson

Transition Extreme at Aberdeen beach is not just a world class extreme sports centre, it is changing lives just as the life of chief executive Grahame Paterson was changed by a television advert as his school career came to an end.

Hundreds turn up every week at the venue from team building executives to thrill seeking skateboarders and rock climbers honing their skills on its 15-metre wall – but its real purpose is to give young people who might otherwise go off the rails the chance to lead fulfilling lives.

It is a charity and social enterprise dedicated to providing opportunities and to give young people who may have been denied opportunities a sense of belief in themselves.

By making the business successful and attracting the support of companies in the area Mr Paterson is opening a door on a future for more and more youngsters who can be helped by its programmes and seven years after it was launched, Transition Extreme is poised for a new phase in its development.

Mr Paterson was not on the brink of a problem life when he left school in Glasgow as a sport obsessed teenager but he had no idea what he wanted to do. To fill a couple of weeks he responded to a television advert for volunteers for the Winged Fellowship Trust and worked as a carer and companion at the charity’s specialist holiday centre for physically disabled adults at Crab Hill House in Surrey.

Seven years later, he was still there and it was the first step on a career path which has included working with some of the world’s biggest football clubs.

“I remember distinctly walking into Crab Hill House and a real sense of connection with it,” he said.

“I stayed as a volunteer for a year and was promoted to manager by the time I was 24. It was a multimillion-pound complex with people from all over the UK and a phenomenal environment. It was a place of joy and happiness where things could happen.”

He eventually moved to Humberside as manager of a respite care complex before studying at Edinburgh Napier University for a degree in tourism management.

He was invited to be project director to set up an international youth leadership centre on Skye where he remained until his nephew, then 11, was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes.

Mr Paterson’s brother Craig, the former chairman and chief executive of the Melville Craig Group, decided to establish a way of generating significant funds for diabetes research while also raise awareness about the condition affecting his son.

“And so it was that Football Aid was born,” said Mr Paterson, who was asked to become executive director to help set up what is now the premier football-based charity in the UK.

“The concept was very simple. People would pay to ‘live the dream’ and play on the pitch of their favourite football club alongside some club legends.

“My brother happened to know Fergus McCann at Celtic through professional connections and asked if Celtic would support this initiative by letting us use the pitch for a day at the end of the season to give fans a chance to live the dream. Celtic said yes and very quickly other clubs in Scotland followed.

“It raised, and continues to raise significant sums and worked with all of the main football industry organisations and the big branded clubs – the Man U’s, Liverpool’s, the Arsenal’s and the Celtic’s all give us their stadiums and the support.

“I remember when Barcelona agreed to give us Camp Nou for a couple of games. Pep Guardiola was one of the playing captains on the night and can you imagine, as a Barcelona fan, the chance to get into that changing room, see your shirt with your name hanging up on the peg next to Guardiola’s and know you are going to go along that tunnel, down the steps past the chapel, up the steps and on to the hallowed turf and play a proper game of football.”

Mr Paterson and his brother were jointly nominated for the Social Entrepreneur Ernst & Young Scotland Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in 2004 and, ironically, were pipped at the post by Ken Milroy, chief executive of Aberdeen Foyer who would later become Chair of Transition Extreme.

With Football Aid well established Mr Paterson embarked on a solo career and it was 2011 before he arrived at Transition Extreme after time as a project-based management consultant.

“Sport – at its best – has benefits that go beyond sporting activity, helping us develop ourselves as citizens, contribute positively to the economy, communities, skills and health agendas,” he said. “That’s the true power of sport and the real value of Transition Extreme.

“We are now one of Scotland’s most effective and innovative youth work in sport organisations, spending £250,000 annually on targeted youth work across employability, education, health improvement and diversionary work to reduce anti-social behaviour.

“When I first arrived at Transition Extreme there was a need to refresh the offering and support organisational development. The business idea was innovative and the charity had some notable achievements under its belt, however we all felt it could deliver better performance and leverage its assets more for the benefit of young people in our community.

“Since then we have seen turnover rise significantly with annual surpluses and new investment of more than £1million into the facility and our youth programmes.

“We are pleased with progress in a tough operating environment but now we need to push on again.

“First of all we want to make further improvements to the centre which is a fantastic context for sports and youth development activity but we need to continually refresh and improve the offering.

“At the same time we need to build the people who are critical to the successful delivery of our mission – the staff.

“Place, people, purpose – those are the elements we wish to grow, develop and achieve through.”

He said Transition has expanded its geographic area of operations, with regular youth work being delivered across the city and shire and they were being encouraged to widen the scope and scale of their work because of increasing demand.

“The demand is primarily from young people themselves although we are also working with NHS Scotland, schools, social workers, Police Scotland, local authorities, Skills Development Scotland and a number of other charities and community groups.

“This has been mainly driven by two key factors: A significant gap in the provision of differentiated educational, employability, enterprise and health-based interventions for young people as a consequence of down-sizing by public sector agencies; and the fact the quality and relevance of our youth work is proven now. We have received wide recognition for the impact our Alternative Academy programmes and other projects are having.

“With the support of the north-east business community we can make a difference to more and more young people’s lives.”