London (AFP) – Forced to move out of Grenfell Tower after a devastating fire a year ago on Thursday, the famous Dale Youth boxing club has become an unlikely sanctuary for those affected.
The club, which has produced two world champions in George Groves and James DeGale, is operating temporarily out of a multi-storey car park in west London near the site of the blaze.
“Everyone has a close attachment to the Tower,” Joe Sweeney, a trainer at the club for the past three years, told AFP on a recent visit to the gym’s new spartan and sombre surroundings.
The fire spread quickly through the 24-storey apartment block in the early hours of June 14 last year, killing 71 people.
The state-of-the-art gym, which has also produced more than 100 national champions, was on the first floor of the tower.
“People lost their lives and homes. The gym being destroyed is an afterthought and of secondary importance,” Sweeney, 34, said, as around 30 enthusiastic boys sparred and gave punchbags — some as heavy as 200 pounds (91 kilos) — a pounding.
Sweeney said that the boys aged eight and upwards who come to the club, many of whom knew people who died in the fire, were “affected” but not as traumatised as might be expected.
“Kids are pretty resilient and get over things quickly whereas adults hang on to stuff and such events are something we don’t handle very well,” Sweeney said.
Fifteen-year-old Jodie lost a close friend in the fire, Yahya Hashim.
The two used to do homework together.
Jodie joined the club a month after the fire claimed the life of 13-year-old Yahya, his two brothers and his parents.
“It was a shock,” he told AFP.
The fire “is in the back of our minds but we have to move on”.
“People have moved past blaming each other and the community has been strengthened so much and now we are all in unison and helping each other to get through it.”
Asked if joining the gym was a way of honouring Yahya’s memory, Jodie answered simply: “Yes, it is.
“Because this gym is linked to him as he would walk past it every day to school.
“I will always have a sense of him when I am here.”
– ‘Removes that anger’ –
On the night that Grenfell Tower went up in flames, club trainer Moutaz Chellat looked on helplessly as five of his family — his uncle and aunt and three of their children — died.
“I lived downstairs from the tower, I could see it from my window and ran out,” the 40-year-old, who has been a youth worker for nearly two decades, told AFP.
“It wasn’t a good feeling, panicking and all that.”
Chellat said training the young at the gym helped him emotionally.
“It removes that anger and angry feeling towards certain things,” he said.
Head coach Gary McGuinness, who has worked at Dale Youth for 15 years, said more local boys were coming to the gym following the fire.
McGuinness commands respect in the gym as he sweeps round the room, cajoling gently, encouraging and sparring with the kids in the ring.
He lost a close acquaintance in 65-year-old Tony Disson, whose three sons won medals and championships for the club.
“He was a big part of our club,” McGuinness said.
“He would love to have seen the new club we have, that is for sure,” he said wistfully.
The gym is due to move into new premises on June 24.
“We are going to push on, we have another home,” Sweeney said.
“We can go there and keep helping the community and building champions.
“Lots of the boys are still here from before and working to realise their dreams.”