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Upper Street youth club warns of battle for survival

Chief executive: ‘Our strength has become our weakness’

05 June, 2020 — By Calum Fraser

Children at St Mary’s before the lockdown

A POPULAR youth club and community centre is on the brink of collapse as the coronavirus lockdown devastates its finances.

The St Mary Islington Community Partnership, a children’s centre in Upper Street which provides a free youth club, a nursery and facilities for extracurricular activities, is appealing for funds from the public in a last-gasp bid to fill the black hole left in its budget.

While many youth services survive on grants from either the council, government or trusts – St Mary’s makes about 80 per cent of its income from renting out the rooms it has next to the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Angel.

The club’s chief executive, Balazs Csernus, told the Tribune: “It has been truly devastating. In one week we started losing all our bookings. It was surreal.

“It is very very difficult to see how we are going to overcome this loss. Partly because we don’t know who is going to come back. Our model is based on being full, sometimes full to the brim.”

The club usually has to turn over about £40,000 a month across the year to break even.

Mr Csernus has applied for a government grant for charities and most of the staff has been furloughed, but he said that there was still a gap of about £100,000 in the centre’s finances.

“There has been a massive under investment in youth services over the past 10 years,” Mr Balazs said.

“Youth services have been decimated with hundreds of clubs closed. It has been a fight for us to remain open and against the odds we have increased our youth service and capacity staffing levels.

“So we have been swimming against the current and the general tendency out there. It also meant that getting grants has been fiercely competitive.

“We decided to rely on our own income through renting the rooms. We thought that had become our greatest strength and now it is our greatest weakness.”

But Mr Csernus said he was “not giving up”.

He added: “It was amazingly heart-warming when we received a £10,000 donation this morning. It’s so encouraging to know that some neighbours want to help.

“I am so completely and utterly chuffed. We want to be here for the long run.”

As the Tribune previously reported, the Copenhagen Youth Project off Caledonian Road has also launched a fundraiser to help it through the lockdown period.

Its director Stephen Griffiths said that the lockdown measures were having a “disastrous” impact on vulnerable children who feel “isolated and displaced”.

Mr Balazs agreed with this. “We don’t want to cut our youth services,” he said. “It will be a long-term loss, especially now with what is happening to young people. Their education has been disrupted and they are getting further behind in terms of development.”

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