In pursuit of excellence

6 March 2019 | West and South West England

Karen Dennison and Sam Russell, Urban_Pursuit

Charity uses sport as a vehicle to change young lives.

Urban Pursuit is a community interest company that serves schools and academies across the city of Bristol. It reaches out to those at risk of school exclusion and positively re-engages them with education through adrenaline sports and adventure activities.

Based in the Bristol Docklands, the project is run by Neil and Karen Dennison. They both know how it feels to struggle as a young person and, having overcome their own difficult childhood and teen years, they were determined to help other young people through theirs. Neil said: “I had a turbulent childhood and wanted to help provide a positive role model to young men. Karen had a fairly traumatic time through her teenage years and wanted to help girls with low self-esteem. Between us we wanted to help those who had experienced a bad start in life.”

That vision led Neil to give up his job as an assistant head teacher in order to devote himself to helping at-risk youngsters.

Urban Pursuit offers up to 30 different outdoor activities such as rock climbing and mountain biking. A student can expect to do around two adventure sports a day and everything is underpinned with personal and social development training and one-to-one mentoring. They also have access to private woodland. Since launching in 2013 the couple have potentially turned around the lives of at least 500 youngsters with their innovative and challenging programmes.

“It was a big risk, and we didn’t know what we were getting into,” admits Neil, 43. “But determination saw us through.“It really came from the heart, we wanted to give them joy and hope back into their lives. And hopefully we do that here. We are both very outdoorsy, so that is the route we thought we’d take.”

More than 75% of students who attend have been permanently excluded from school and are in pupil-referral units. They typically come one or two days a week as an alternative to their normal education. “Around 10% are on the autistic spectrum but many come from chaotic home lives,” explained Neil. “We get our best results when we are outside in the woodland. Many find it difficult sitting still so like the freedom of not being confined to one area. It brings down their anxiety levels.”

Through structured mentoring they aim to give the youngsters a more positive outlook towards the wider world beyond their own community. “There is a real impact, with students demonstrating improved behaviour, better relationships with adults and improved attitudes towards learning.”

Sam Russell, 14, visits Urban Pursuit twice a week. The articulate youngster credits the centre for building his confidence. He said: “I used to react when I went out, I would become overwhelmed. But I am much calmer now. Doing all these sports means I can release pent up negative energy that builds up in me.

“I really like going, my self-esteem has really improved. It is somewhere where I can just be myself and not feel judged. I have also made some great friends. There are people there with the same issues who get me. I don’t have to feel like I am different or alone.

“They also have mental health and anger groups which really help. Urban Pursuit have made me feel really positive about my future.”

Mum Sheron, added: “I have seen a brilliant change in Sam. It has calmed him down and made him more socially aware.”

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