Odile Lehnen is a second-year Science and Society student, and the Project Leader for Kickstart, a UCL Taekwondo-affiliated volunteering project. She came into the office to talk to us about why she started the project, the impact they’ve had, and what she got out of it.
This year, we partnered with the Octagon AP Academy, which is a pupil referral unit in Wood Green. The kids often come from quite challenging backgrounds, and have been excluded from the conventional schooling systems. Once a week, our women’s captain, Betty, goes in with another volunteer and taekwondo kit to deliver the sessions.
I’m the Volunteering Officer for UCL Taekwondo, and I had an incredible first year with them. I soon realised what a great community with amazing people this is and felt we could expand our positive impact beyond the boundaries of UCL. I felt that taekwondo as a sport really lent itself to this sort of environment; these kids often come from violent backgrounds, are interested in self-defence and frequently experience frustration that builds up over time. In taekwondo, your opponent is also your partner, and you stick to the rules. It’s a great way to channel your aggression within parameters and learn to respect the people you are interacting with.
In the beginning a lot of the students were interested in the violent aspect; The first thing one of them asked our coach was: “what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to someone?”; what we needed to teach them was that we don’t love kicking people in order to hurt them, but we do it as a sport that has rules, which must be followed.
There was a lot of interest in the club for contributing to this project; we had around twenty volunteers who would rotate in and out as the coach along with Betty. We also got a large number of members involved through our fundraiser, where we sold drinks and baked goods in the Main Quad, held our “Kicker of the Year” competition and enjoyed some live music. This event really helped to spread the word and build a community for the project. We used the money raised to buy equipment and kits for the young people we’re working with; we want them to be able to do gradings (qualifications) in the future.
My London experience has been very UCL-centred, so being exposed to the kinds of lives these kids have was an experience I would not have received anywhere else.
In the first term, the sessions were quite challenging, more so than we imagined. It was difficult to get the kids to participate, especially the girls. We often took 10-15 minutes to get them going; luckily, their gym teacher was there to motivate them as well. He actually told us that before us, none of the girls had ever participated in his classes, and we’d got them to start kicking(!), so that was a nice moment! Something we used as a motivator for them was the doboks (kits). They will each get their own one if they keep coming, and they love the idea of that. We don’t always get a consistent class every week, but that’s something we’d like to work on next year.
For me personally, this project has really helped my organisational skills; for instance, I’d never run a big fundraiser like we did this year. For the volunteering itself, it was an insight into a different world; my London experience so far had been very UCL-centred, so being exposed to the kinds of lives these kids have to lead was a very valuable experience.
I’m unlikely to be running the project next year, but I’d love to see this carry on! I still want to be volunteering, because it’s a great experience and I think we’re doing really good work. We want everyone in the UCL Taekwondo community to be able to participate and make a difference.