Local Heroes Series: Alison O'Connell MBE

This article contains references to suicide and domestic abuse. 

“I fell into this work by accident.”

When Alison O’Connell MBE went along to a training course to make up numbers nearly 20 years ago, she would never have guessed it would completely change her career. She was working at the local post office on the counter when her friend called asking her to sign up so a Level 2 football coaching course could go ahead.

Describing herself as “tom-boy”, Alison said “I was brought up playing football as a child with all the local lads in the area”. But she said she didn’t know much about football: “I could play but I’d never played in a team, only in the park with the kids.”

Going along to the course she was hooked straight away and 18 months after completing it she’d set up a girl’s section at her local football club. Word got out quickly and after two weeks with only two or three girls, all of a sudden there were between 35-40. Alison said: “I thought to myself, oh my gosh! Now I’m going to need another member of staff!” She called on her friends to give her a hand and they ended up with three teams, one U10s, one U12s and a U14 team.

She then applied for a role with Birmingham County FA and was offered the job as a Community Worker using football as an outreach tool in Stetchford. While working for them she started FITCAP (Fitness in The Community and Active Play), set up in 2006 as a one-year project. It is still going and is now a community interest business (CIC). At the time her children were 2 and 7 and Alison credits her husband and her sister who supported her with childcare for making it a success.

Alison O'Connell MBE at FITCAP

When the city faced government cuts, Alison changed roles and started working for Sport Birmingham. As part of this she created the MAD (Make A Difference) project which is a youth mentoring programme supporting young people aged 11-16.

It’s not uncommon for her phone to ring in the middle of the night with people asking for her help. The next day she’ll be an appropriate adult for the young person, supporting the family in court while mum needs to look after the other kids. She described her husband of 35 years as her “soul mate and rock” and said he just asks “Who is it? Well, you better go then”. She said: “There aren’t many husbands who would be like that, but he encourages me to go and help the kids and just do what I’ve got to do.”

In the New Year’s Honours List in 2014, Alison was recognised for her commitment to the voluntary sector and awarded an MBE by the Queen and Prince Charles.

Alison O'Connell receiving her MBE from Prince Charles

Since September 2020 she has been on secondment with the violence reduction unit. Alison is used to working alongside the Police supporting young people who are involved with gangs and anti-social behaviour. However, she describes the traumatic loss of her sister, who was murdered by her partner, as a turning point for her. Despite already doing a huge amount to support people in the community, she wanted to do more to raise awareness of domestic violence and reduce crime.

Alison said “We need to catch it earlier. In my sister’s case it was coercive control, so although there was violence in the early stages, my sister was able to hold her own with him.”. Alison and other family members challenged his physical behaviour, but they didn’t know the scale of the abuse. “We were unaware that she didn’t have her own bank card. He controlled her mostly through finance.”

Alison’s sister, as a result of years of abuse, struggled with her mental health and tried to commit suicide on a number of occasions. Alison said when she went to the hospital after one attempt, medical staff overlooked what had happened and dismissed her as being “a silly girl”.

Alison said more questions should have been asked at the hospital about her mental health and the causes of her depression. With the amendments to the Homicide Review, Alison said “they’ve already been making changes within the hospital around asking women the right questions instead of assuming they’re just doing it because they’re attention seeking.”.

Growing up in a “blended household, which was quite unheard of then”, Alison and her sister were victims of domestic violence, regularly beaten by their step-mum who Alison believes was driven by her frustration towards her dad.

“My dad was a bit of a womanizer. He was womanizing all the time while she was at home looking after her three children, then she inherited us two and then she had one daughter with my dad. So, she’d gone from three children to six overnight. She had a lot of resentment and unfortunately she took it out on us.”

I think I made my mind up at an early age that no matter what happened it would not distinguish who I am going to be.

Alison O'Connell MBE

She believes that their experience growing up meant her sister found it harder to recognise signs of abusive behaviour. She said: “Some of the young girls that we work with think: ‘well that’s just how it is.’. Like my sister, she just thought ‘oh that’s what life’s about.’”

Alison has a remarkable ability to turn traumatic experiences into something positive. Despite how she was treated by her step mum, she says by the age of 15 or 16 she decided to forgive her. When her sister died she was again able to show her resilience.

“I think I made my mind up at an early age that no matter what happened it would not distinguish who I am going to be. I struggled to get over my sister. I was really struggling with that and it was making me someone different to who I wanted to be. So that’s when I came to the decision that I had to forgive him to move on. It was a way of me being able to move on, by making him irrelevant to me.”

Alison said: “It’s a very strange one and it’s hard for me to explain to people but the emotions that I went through were different, but I was getting stuck on the anger part of it all. I was getting really angry, and I wasn’t able to move on from the anger and I’m not an angry person.”

“I wasn’t able to support others because I was just lost in this place of my own that I couldn’t get out of for a while but actually by learning to forgive him I was able to move on.”

This is the advice she gives to young people she works with. “I speak to a lot of youngsters one-to-one and just say you will never forget but you can learn to forgive and move on. You can live the rest of your life without looking back.”

I could look into a kid’s eye and know they were hurting. I think that’s because I used to be that kid myself.

Alison O'Connell MBE

Alison says her experiences have helped her to support young people and recognise when someone is struggling. “I could look into a kid’s eye and know they were hurting. I think that’s because I used to be that kid myself.” Building up their trust, she tells them they can turn to her when they are ready to.

She is also an advocate for keeping things relaxed and not scaring people away because of formal referral protocols. “I always find what suits them, because what suits me will not suit everyone.”

“Sometimes it’s just quite simply someone who I’ve met through this line of work and I just phone up and say can you do me a favour – can I get you to have a conversation with this young person. I just do it that way. Sometimes if you make things too formal, you’ll frighten them.”

She said: “Some just need that little pep talk, ‘Come on you got this. You’re strong, you’ve got this, you can do this.’”

“They’ll go away and think ‘yeah, I’ve got this’. Sometimes they need to know someone is fighting their corner.”

Alison O'Connell MBE with Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill

“I remember when everyone gave up on me, I knew I had you.” Alison said: “You didn’t give up on you so that’s half the battle!”

One woman who was referred to her as a teenager by the Police recently got back in touch on Facebook. She came to Alison after she’d been getting into trouble and Alison quickly found her a place in one of her football teams.

Since then, she’s the first member of her family to go university, achieving a 2.1 and is living happily in a healthy relationship with a good job. She said: “I remember when everyone gave up on me, I knew I had you.” Alison said: “You didn’t give up on you so that’s half the battle!”

Replying to what her 17-year-old self would have said about everything she’d achieved, she said: “I probably wouldn’t have believed it because as a school child I was a victim of bullying, but I was also a bully. So, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

“I think that’s what you’ve got to recognise, who we were then and who we are now. I think that’s probably why I do the work that I do now to try and compensate for times when I was horrible to people.”

“I have made my peace with that and had conversations with people I did bully at school. I think at school that was my mechanism to cope. That was just me. I went to every school club after school every night of the week because it was safer at school than it was at home for me.”

“I would have turned to you and said, nah it’s never going to happen to me. How am I going to be able to achieve all that? How am I going to be able to do all of that? When you know I had such a crap start in life. But it’s probably what’s happened to me that’s made me who I am.”

Our ‘Local Heroes’ series celebrates incredible people in the communities where we work.

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