In the April edition of the Active Humber blog, we have invited Sam Barlow, Chief Officer at Fitmums and Friends to discuss why she believes Fitmums has been so successful in the Humber and beyond. Active Humber are proud to have supported Fitmums through their journey over the past decade, by offering advice and guidance where required. It's fantastic to see the progression of Fitmums from a small group of friends to a large influential force in our local area. If you would like to find out how we can help you in your work contact us today.
Now over to Sam...
It was never part of the plan to end up leading a charity supporting men, women and children to be active. If someone had suggested I did that, I would have laughed – who me? No way! But sometimes life takes you down paths you don't necessarily mean to follow.
But way back in 2009 I was a busy working mum, with a 2 and 4 year old. Not much time to be active but my head knew I needed to be even if the body wasn't willing. A simple homemade flyer in the book bag of my son's class was the beginning of something very special. Four mums responded to my request to meet me one night for a run and that was a quite unintentional start to what would ultimately become a registered charity in 2017.
Since that first club in Cottingham, East Yorkshire a further 10 clubs have since been created extending the Fitmums & Friends footprint beyond the Humber into NE Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire. There are also extensions of the original concept that now include mental health programmes, a mental health champion structure, guide runners, an extensive coaching structure, a team of people that offer 1-1 support for those that need extra help to start being active, a race support team. There are now more activities than just running; fitness walking, cycling, buggy sessions, children's sessions. The growth continues.
The success of the charity is not due to a calculated programme of expansion – although observers from the outside may well assume that. Many times we hear the belief that we are a national organisation. No – homegrown in East Yorkshire and not national. Yet! The growth is simply due to more and more people recognising that this set up may just work for them in their community. The success is down to well organised systems, robust foundations and a model that means re-creation in new communities is easily done.
The most essential part of expansion is the volunteers that we attract to manage each new club or session. In an organisation of nearly 1100 members about 250 volunteers make things happen. They are the lifeblood of the charity – as with many charities. But I believe it is this approach that makes Fitmums & Friends successful. Instead of parachuting health professionals in to make activity happen – clubs grow from the individuals within the community. The nurturing of these individuals is paramount. Often people walk through the door not believing they can run a mile. Then before you know it those same people have grown wings to be able to become a run leader, a Club Co-ordinator, a Coach or a volunteer supporting that local club. Whatever the role, they grow in leadership, confidence, skills and knowledge. Very quickly the set up seems to inspire a desire to give back. I know, because I have experienced it too. There is almost something more magical about witnessing and supporting someone else to run their first mile than when you yourself achieved it. And then word of mouth keeps the people coming through the door. Once the seed is planted it simply needs support to grow.
The reason people walk through the door of a Fitmums & Friends Club is probably its high regard for the complete beginner to activity. The most common phrase we hear is "I'd never join a proper running club" – we are not viewed in the same way as the many well established local running clubs. The step in obviously seems a little less daunting. Yet despite not being a "proper" running club we see members taking part in parkruns, races, being coached in drills and technique, supported with individual training programmes, progressing through the mileage groups and gaining a fixation on increasing distance (not encouraged but it happens)! We sometimes see members move on to a "proper running" club and feel great pride that we helped that transition.
Of course the biggest impact is probably not on physical health, but on social and mental health. The connections made, camaraderie, support and friendships made are always identified as one of the most important things about joining a club like Fitmums & Friends. There is also evidence that volunteers gain skills and qualifications which either help them in their paid roles or move them closer to getting paid work. We hear so many stories that lead you to believe it is almost not about the running/walking/cycling – but something far more enduring.
And so there is much work to be done. It is highly possible to create more clubs using this well established model. We know now that it works, regardless of the community or the personalities involved. When I visit clubs and hear people tell me so many transformational stories it compels me to keep going. Managing a charity whilst still juggling the day job creates challenge and involves sacrifices but nothing in the world would make me think my step down that path in 2009 was the wrong direction to go. It just has to have been the right one and our aim now is to create sustainability for the future – to make sure that our contribution towards helping the inactivity agenda is one which gives faith and hope to so many people who currently think this is beyond them. We know we have a role to play as part of the wider infrastructure supporting improved health through creating active lives. It just might be possible that as we celebrate our 10th anniversary we may be realistically considered as a credible organisation to really help make a difference.