Dean McKee was the voice of Queens Park Rangers. Every matchday at Loftus Road, the west Londoner’s spoken word poem ‘Born Blue and White’ rings around the rickety old stadium. It’s not just a rhyme, but the reason behind the club’s identity: a unique sense of community spirit which lives in this diverse, working-class corner of Shepherds Bush. As those familiar words fade out prior to kick-off – make this church our fortress, you know who we are – they are replaced by the roars of those in the stands.
McKee passed away in the early hours of Tuesday morning after contracting coronavirus. He was just 28 years old, and his loss has left a hole at the club and within the local area. “Dean used to go to one of our soccer schools as a kid,” says Andy Evans, the chief executive of QPR’s Community Trust. “He went to one of the local primary schools which we help support. He was a local kid. Sadly, that is the reality now, that coronavirus has taken someone from the QPR family away from us.”
It’s the inescapable sense of tragedy the trust has been attempting to prevent since the severity of the pandemic came into focus. Every year it supports around 25,000 people and over 300 workshops a week give structure to vulnerable teenagers and pensioners alike. But as the disease has shipwrecked life as we know it and often left those most in need stranded, the charity has felt a greater weight of responsibility than ever.
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“It’s getting harder as the weeks tick by,” Evans continues. “We run a lot of programmes for what would now be considered the vulnerable groups. Some of those people have fallen ill and are understandably very scared by that. Others are struggling with isolation. We have young people who are used to getting regular face-to-face mentoring. We’re having to be creative to help those people in our community so it doesn’t feel like all of a sudden that support isn’t there.”
One support system the trust has put in place over the past weeks is a phone network so senior first-team players and ex-professionals can keep in close contact with those at risk, check on their health and provide a positive outlet of escape. “We know how important those fans are and what they do for us throughout the season,” says Bright Osayi-Samuel, one of the breakout stars in the Championship this season. “The players are calling them regularly, asking how they’ve been, if there’s anything that we can help with, and mainly just to let them know that we care about them.”
If a player identifies a supporter who may be in need, the trust can then liaise with Hammersmith and Fulham’s Community Aid Network to provide immediate support. “We had a young supporter who was in touch recently and we managed to get a food parcel to his family,” says Evans.
“Grenfell will always be the toughest thing I’ve been involved in on a local level. But the difference then was we were all able to come together and help. When there’s a crisis, quite often you want to rush towards it. Social distancing and isolation have created a huge challenge to overcome.”
For the teenagers who’d usually attend training sessions on a Friday and Saturday evening with coaches on local estates, a solution has come in the form of group Fifa tournaments. Five weeks’ worth of football-based challenges have already been coordinated to keep people healthy at home, while former England international Andy Sinton will chair a Skype session where “any fans feeling down, lonely or isolated” can call in. An ambitious project could even see players able to virtually help with children’s homeschooling. “It’s really just about those personal touches sometimes,” says Evans. “We’ve had to completely rethink how we use resources, put on activities and find new ways to support people.”
Some physical aspects were more easily addressed. The car park and storage facilities at Loftus Road were quickly made available to emergency response units. Coaches are helping out in schools still open for the children of key workers, while food which had been bought ahead of upcoming home matches was donated to local foodbanks via City Harvest; a redistribution charity in the local area. “A lot of food poverty charities have had to move to bigger premises and are struggling for cash and food,” says Evans. “We’re pushing out some messages from the players and the fans this week which we hope can be a call to action for people to help.”
The lack of incoming revenue is a catastrophe shared by every charitable organisation attempting to negotiate the crisis. The trust’s 10-mile ‘Tiger Feet’ march, which was supposed to take place ahead of QPR’s now postponed derby against Fulham, was expected to raise over £15,000 that would immediately fund a specialised programme supporting those suffering from Down’s syndrome. Meanwhile, eight football holiday camps over Easter would usually subsidise the trust’s near-100 members of staff.
“Like any charity, those income streams which are vitally important have all stopped,” says Evans. “We’re lucky to get great support from the club and we will get through this but the longer it goes on, the harder it becomes for all of us. The staff work with these people year-round, they see them every week and care for them. It can be very tough for them emotionally and they’ve got their own families too. We’re in the unknown, but all we can do is put ourselves in the best position to offer our support no matter how long this lasts.”
When football does eventually return, Dean McKee’s poem will continue to be played ahead of every home match. And as the world awakens from this tragedy, his voice will always live on as a reminder of how the club and community stood together for something far greater than the sport it represents.
To find out more about QPR in the Community Trust, click here.
The Independent has launched a Help The Hungry appeal to help those going hungry because of the coronavirus crisis, teaming up with The Felix Project to deliver produce to community hubs in London boroughs.
We are also asking food charities across Britain to contact [email protected] to tell us about your project. We are building a directory of ways that our readers can help the hungry in their area – through money, volunteering and food donations.
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