London’s East End ends and the Olympic Park, in all its ghost town glory, rises up out of the marshes it was gouged into. The 308 bus slithers through knowingly, edging ever deeper into the London Borough of Newham. Here, a stone’s throw into the shadow cast by the London 2012 shrine, there’s a saint shouting. “Menelik! Stop dancing! Why are you doing some Michael Jackson move out there on your own?” Her hollers reverberate over a thunderous drone, ascending into the rafters of St Angela Ursuline’s breezeblock-built, magnolia-licked hall. This is the Newham Youngbloods’ house and Coach Caroline Charles - draped in a tracksuit, long dreadlocks bunched back with a headscarf - presides over all.
As one of the most deprived areas in the country, Newham’s rough reputation belies its vibrancy as one of the youngest and most ethnically diverse demographics in England. “We’re one of the poorest boroughs in London, so I can’t ask the kids for a lot of money, because their parents don’t have the money to give them,” she explains. Appropriately, within the context of this community, Coach Caroline’s manifesto is simple; make, “everything accessible for everyone,” or alternatively, “lose all [her] kids…and they’ll be on the streets doing stupidness.”
Witnessing first hand the tangible effect that being a part of the Youngbloods’ family has on these kids is utterly infectious. Inclusive, yet outward-looking, the discipline and focus Coach Caroline drills into the Youngbloods whilst they’re on court, ultimately manifests itself in their perspectives and social skills off the court, outside of themselves and the borough. “There are boys from Redbridge and Waltham Forest here; they’ve extended their friendships to people who go to different schools and have different lives.” As such, Coach Caroline’s impact on these teenagers and her resulting legacy, within the community and further afield, is hard to measure and yet also, it cannot be overstated. Reluctant to concentrate on her own personal contribution, she’s quick to mention the other coaching staff, secretaries and parents without whom she could not run the club. Fittingly, in a borough that’s motto proclaims, "Progress with the People,” Coach Caroline is assured that, “if [the kids] feel good about themselves, they’ll go and pass that onto someone else.”
Whilst it takes a little prodding on my part, a number of the Youngbloods admit that, with expectations set so high, it can take time to get used to Coach Caroline. “Sometimes she can get annoying…” under-18s player Milene bashfully confesses, “…but overall we love Coach; she’s like a big mum to us. She looks over us as if we were one of her own. She doesn’t just have two children, she has fourteen of them.”
In a role not neatly defined by the referee’s final whistle, I question how Coach Caroline navigates the blurred boundaries and far-reaching responsibilities of her position, without stepping on parents’ toes or overshooting an indistinct line. “Everybody wants to come and coach and tell people what to do, but no one wants to take on that extra bit,” she explains. “It is blurry... I’m not just a coach. You go in there, but you go in tentatively... I just be me.”
Despite being honoured last year by the Youth Games committee for her ‘outstanding contribution,’ Coach Caroline - like countless other basketball coaches in England - is criminally underappreciated and underpaid (Caroline in fact isn’t paid, or, as she modestly puts it, “I’ve been driving that car outside for a long time.”) I ask why she continues to do what she does; it’s a rhetorical question, but I’m intrigued to hear her motivations. “I like giving the kids the opportunity for them to shine,” she grins. “I feel committed to them and I want them to be the best they can be, not just on the basketball court. They’ll always remember this; this will always be there.”
Earlier in the day, before “Newham’s Golden Girls” (as the Newham Recorder recently asserted) handed the Surrey Steelers an 84-36 hammering, I asked the under-18 women who Coach Caroline is on the rare occasions she’s not here coaching. “She’s always here,” Roshni retorted. Later on, I reiterated the question to Caroline. For the first time throughout our lively conversation, she’s stumped. A prolonged, pregnant pause allows the boom of bouncing basketballs to flood into the office. A few boys, yet to fill out their gangly limbs, lope up and down the corridor outside.
“I don’t do… See, that’s the thing; it’s not just that the game is finished and that’s it.” Feverishly, she wades through a mountain of papers on her desk. I suggest that she’s evading the question. “I’m trying to think! Basically, these kids are my life…” Her phone rings mid-sentence, ushering “This Little Light of Mine” out across the office in all its tinny-speaker, gospel glory. Finally, she remembers, “Well, the games tomorrow don’t tip off until the afternoon, so I might have time to go church.”