esley Spuhler has started to view her dining table through slightly jaded eyes. The chief executive of Sunderland’s Beacon of Light is not tired of the design and harbours no furniture repainting plans but she never envisaged a working life that would involve sitting at it for endless hours between meals.
“There was a certain novelty when we first went into lockdown but spending all day at my dining table isn’t enjoyable,” says Spuhler. “Your work/life balance disappears. It’s something I wasn’t very good at managing at first.”
That was back in March when coronavirus struck. It was arguably the very worst sort of crisis to afflict her usual workplace, a pioneering community hub dedicated to harnessing the power of football and changing lives through human connection.
Housed in a stunning piece of Wearside architecture and situated within the precincts of Sunderland’s Stadium of Light, the £19m Beacon is an offshoot of the League One club’s registered charity, the Foundation of Light.
The first community project of its kind in England, it opened in 2018 with a mission to provide opportunities for often disadvantaged young people, and some older adults, in spheres including sport, education, health and employability.
A six-storey, cube-shaped structure crowned by a roof that lights up at night, the Beacon variously contains a special free school catering for vulnerable children struggling to adapt to mainstream education, international-class sports facilities, a world of work zone and a floor dedicated to health and wellbeing.
Around 7,000 participants normally pass through its doors each week, as Jamie Oliver cookery classes run alongside football, netball, basketball, badminton and futsal sessions, but the normally buzzing corridors fell eerily silent in March. The sudden emptiness seemed the antithesis of the vision of Sir Bob Murray, which the former Sunderland AFC owner turned philanthropist and inspiration behind the Beacon worked so hard to implement.
Although still a trustee, Murray now lives in Jersey, reassured that, with Spuhler at the helm, his brainchild is in safe hands. “We had to close the building down in March and weren’t able to open again until July; it was a really challenging problem,” explains a chief executive who, due to the latest lockdown, has temporarily migrated to that dining room table. “We couldn’t let people down so we had to quickly join a virtual world. We moved lots of things, health and fitness courses included, online and started setting people weekly virtual quizzes and challenges.
“We’ve done virtual mentoring and made phone calls to vulnerable people to make sure they weren’t too lonely. By reworking a lot of things we managed to maintain some of our most essential services.”
The word essential is no exaggeration. “We’re definitely a lifeline for some people,” says the 49-year-old Spuhler who has spent 20 years building the Foundation of Light and now the Beacon. “We’ve worked very closely with local councils, food banks and the Salvation Army. Our staff volunteered to help food banks with packing and deliveries, ensuring people in areas of significant financial hardship have healthy meals. And the football club’s really helped; so many Sunderland supporters have donated to food banks.”
Human bonding is very much the thread that runs through everything the Beacon does and, even though Spuhler knows virtual relationships are a very poor substitute for the real thing, she has come to appreciate the internet’s scope. “We’ve certainly had our eyes opened and learned lessons from the pandemic,” she admits. “I’m now a very different chief executive. I think we’re moving into a different world.”
By mid-summer Spuhler felt close to burnout and drove to northern France with her husband for a restorative week on the Picardy coast. “There’d been a lot of sleepless nights and a few lows during lockdown,” she says. “At first I’d work from when I got up until late. If you go into an office there’s a home/life boundary but, with several of my team furloughed, I picked up their work. It was quite exhausting.
“Afterwards, I returned to the office as much as possible but we’re so conscious of the health and safety aspect, of the need for constant cleaning, we’ve been taking turns coming into the building.”
Meanwhile costs mounted and a woman who had strived so hard to help raise the £19m capital required for the Beacon’s opening once again found herself stuck deep in balance sheets. “We’ve quite a lot of supporters and investors who’ve been great but I’d be lying if I said there’s been no financial impact; we still have to make sure the pandemic doesn’t do long-term damage.”
Protecting Murray’s vision is imperative. “Sir Bob left school in Consett without qualifications and his philosophy is that people don’t want handouts but they do want opportunities,” says Spuhler. “He’s passionate about giving people chances and experiences to make something of themselves. Sir Bob’s absolutely inspirational. We wouldn’t be here without him.”
The teenage Murray spent his days as an office dogsbody and evenings studying for academic qualifications, eventually becoming an accountant. Later, he helped found Spring Ram, an enormously successful kitchen and bathroom company.
When Murray – who would make the Foundation of Light England’s biggest football club charity – dubbed Sunderland “the caring club”, it was no empty slogan. “Clubs countrywide are stepping up to meet the current challenges in their communities,” says Spuhler. “I like to think we’ve been doing that for 20 years but the situation now feels so much more acute than ever before.
“There are a lot of isolated people who rely on Sunderland’s matches for social interaction and are missing human contact. We try and fill some of that void.”
The free school caters for 60 members of a different cohort. “It’s run in partnership with other local schools, who identify young people most in need,” says Spuhler. “The Foundation used to have a scheme for socially marginalised children called ‘Pitstop’ in the Stadium of Light’s classrooms. They came to us for six weeks but now we’re a proper school where pupils stay longer term.”
Older students learn practical skills at the Beacon’s World of Work facility, reflecting the benefits of strong partnerships with leading local employers including Arriva and Barratt Homes. “There’s a Barratt construction unit where people learn about the industry,” says Spuhler. “It’s not just teaching bricklaying but a whole raft of roles, sometimes leading to real jobs.”
The dividends of such motivational initiatives shine through during annual “Top Scorer” awards. “We nominate individuals who’ve made significant changes to their lives or helped others,” she says.
“One guy brought a heavy suitcase he could hardly lift. It represented the weight he’d lost on one of our programmes. A family gave up smoking and afforded a first holiday. They’re snapshots of what’s happening here every day. We definitely play an important part in creating hope. And, at the moment, hope is vital.”