From humble beginnings to a force to be reckoned with
A charity started from a home in Butterknowle by getting jobs in sport for two veterans has grown over eight years to provide support for almost 10,000 ex-soldiers and is preparing to stage a major festival featuring international artists. Reporter Martin Paul visited its founder Tommy Lowther to find out about the route to Sporting Force’s success.
A CHARITY started by an Army veteran from Butterknowle is celebrating its eighth anniversary with new premises and a three-day festival starring international artists.
Tommy Lowther started his charity Sporting Force from his home with the aim of finding employment for veterans at professional football clubs.
At the time he was unemployed and suffering from PTSD.
He said: “I had just lost my job at GSK and had a mental breakdown. It was quite a dark time. It got to the point of suicide and I couldn’t see a way out. I made a lot of silly decisions and I was getting into fights and drinking.”
Apart from serving in the army, Mr Lowther spent eight years in the police force in London and one of the more stressful experiences was the terrorist bombing of the Underground and bus service.
At the time of the bombing he was due to have a holiday in the north with his wife Joanne and their new-born son Daniel, and were headed to Stevenage Station
He said: “It was frightening. We were on the way when I got the call. I was one of the first to go in [to the Underground]. The whole time [I was down there] she was on the train. It was horrendous. People were screaming. People were missing limbs.” His greatest concern that his young family would also become victims.
After suffering a mental breakdown, Mr Lowther attended Help for Heroes’ Pathfinder programme.
He credits the scheme, as well as the support of his family, with saving his life.
He said: “During Pathfinder they asked ‘what makes you tick, what makes you get out of bed in the morning?’. For me it has always been sport and, equally, I get a buzz out of helping people.”
Evidence of his support for people in distress came later where he was awarded a police Bravery Medal for helping save the life of a woman during a frightening domestic abuse incident, as well as arranging warmth and food for people in the upper Gaunless Valley when the power went out for as long as a week after Storm Arwen.
As for sport he was a talent scout for Middlesbrough Football Club at the time, and recently took over the management of Barnard Castle Football Club.
He decided to combine the two by using his contacts at the Middlesbrough FC to help get ex-servicemen jobs at football grounds.
He said: “Two vets were taken in, one doing matchday hospitality and the other ground keeping at the practice ground. Within two weeks they were offered paid employment, which was ironic since I was out of work at the time.
“After eight years we have access to 92 professional clubs and also rugby, tennis, cricket, athletics – any sport really.”
So far, the charity has helped almost 10,000 veterans.
Sporting Force was so successful that it was able to move from his home in Butterknowle to a building in Newton Aycliffe and later to Darlington.
More recently it has moved to Sapphire house at the IES Centre, in Newton Aycliffe, which houses The Veterans’ Hub.
Along with Sporting Force there are groups like Veteran’s Woodcraft, Art of Wellbeing and the Warrior Project at the hub.
The new Sporting Force facility boasts a £50,000 gym, complete with wheelchair access equipment and personal trainer courses have been put on for veterans who later volunteer at the gym in a peer-to-peer way.
The charity has been so successful that it has won many awards, with the most recent seeing Mr Lowther being recognised as the 1,699th recipient of the Prime Minister’s Point of Light Award.
Mr Lowther said: “I’ve always said we are a little charity with a big mouth.”
This recognition has led to the charity being chosen to oversee £800,000 of cash which has been awarded to ten veterans’ groups, including Sporting Force, by the Government’s Armed Forces Covenant scheme.
Mr Lowther said: “We will help bring them up to the standard we are at. We are the portfolio holders of all the veterans’ groups in the North.”
Sporting Force will be using its share of the cash to put on mental health courses all over the north, and Mr Lowther hopes to present some of the courses at village halls at Butterknowle, Copley, Woodland, Cockfield and Evenwood.
A chance encounter with the organiser of the annual V Musical Festival has led Mr Lowther to host a unique event which will further help veterans, raise cash for the charity and provide some superb entertainment for the public.
Mr Lowther said: “I told him I would love to put on a festival. He said, ‘you find the money and I will put on the best festival you have ever seen’.”
The veteran found investment through Enigma Holdings and the result is the At Ease [Even After Service Ends] Festival which will feature such stars as Natalie Imbruglia, Kaiser Chiefs and Happy Mondays.
The family-oriented event, at Euston Park over the August bank holiday weekend, will also feature Fireman Sam and Horrible Histories for children.
While open to the wider public, it will feature a Veterans’ Village, which houses stalls of different organisations offering help with a variety of issues from benefits and getting employment to mental and physical health.
Mr Lowther said: “We will have fun things with kids such as archery, so mum and dad can go around all the stalls to see what is available for them to get on [in life].”
Mr Lowther is now looking for businesses in Teesdale to sponsor tickets so that veterans and their families, who are struggling financially,can attended the At Ease Festival free of charge.
Those who can help can ring 08000 509502 or visit sportingforce.org.
For more information about the festival, or to book tickets, visit ateasefestival.com.