‘There’s really not much I wouldn’t tackle. I never let the fact that I’m disabled stop me’
A few years ago, 18-year-old Jodie Gourley, from Monkstown, Co Antrim, felt that her life was going nowhere and there was little on the horizon to look forward to.
But even though she was born with debilitating, life-long quadriplegic cerebral palsy, she has bravely taken life by the horns and is working hard to make her dreams come true.
With cheery determination, Jodie has overcome huge obstacles. She wants to build a career helping other young people who face tough challenges and is already well on the way to achieving that aim.
With support from Monkstown Boxing Club, which is funded by The National Lottery Community Fund, and encouragement from her family, Jodie moved from a special school to mainstream education two years ago, achieved 11 GCSEs (A* to Cs), and has set her sights on studying community youth work at university after completing her A Levels.
Diagnosed when she was 15 months old, Jodie is unable to walk, sit or stand up unaided. She has previously had two major surgeries for a dislocated hip and her bladder and bowel when they stopped working.
She uses a special hi-tech wheelchair which supports her when she needs to stand up or to stretch. Unfortunately, Jodie was recently diagnosed with scoliosis, which causes a lot of pain, and will soon undergo another operation to straighten her spine.
“Every part of my body is affected by cerebral palsy, the only thing that is functional is my voice,” Jodie explains. Now an articulate and confident young woman, she has admirably learned to use that voice.
Her journey at Monkstown Boxing Club started five years ago and it has turned her life around. The club runs personal development programmes as well as boxing, empowering young people through group work, one to one mentoring and youth leadership.
“I am now a volunteer working with new members and I’m a massive disabilities advocate on TikToK and Instagram,” she says.
“I used to go to a special needs school in Belfast, where I got the best support in the world but felt I had no prospects for the future. I’d have left with no qualifications, life skills, confidence or friends.
“I spent a lot of time getting on buses to go to school and coming home and sitting in the house. I felt I was wasting my time, I felt very isolated and was really down.”
Jodie then became very ill while waiting for surgery and was off school for a year. During this time she became involved with Monkstown Boxing Club - and that was when she realised there was so much more that she could do.
Monkstown Boxing Club has received almost £1m in funding from The National Lottery Community Fund since 2012.
They deliver a wide range of programmes to the hardest to reach young people aimed at improving educational achievement, creating pathways to employment, building healthier lifestyles, bringing communities together and reducing crime.
Part of that work is to increase training and employment opportunities for those who are not involved in the formal education system. They give young people a second chance.
Since the outbreak of Covid, the club has also taken on a wider role becoming a community support network, delivering food to the elderly, and transforming their gym into a food bank and soup kitchen.
“In 2019, with the help of my youth work mentor in the club, I moved from special school to a mainstream school, Abbey Community College. It took ages but it was well worth it and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I worked extremely hard for my GCSEs, I had no English or maths skills and had a lot of catching up to do. I’m now working for my A-Levels. It’s difficult but I love doing it,” Jodie says.
“I first started at the club five years ago. My brother was into a lot of sport and training in boxing a couple of nights a week and suggested I get involved. It took a lot of courage but I went along to the drop-in.
“For a few weeks everyone was a bit standoffish — with me being so disabled it can be daunting. Once they realised I could socialise and share a joke, they let down their barriers and I haven’t looked back.
“I joined the club’s young women’s group, called ‘This Girl Can’, where we discussed issues and developed ourselves as young women, exploring who we are as a person, setting goals and aspirations for ourselves.
“In the Young Leaders programme we learned how to facilitate and deliver projects to the younger kids. I also got a Level One OCN youth work qualification. I would never have done anything like that before if it weren’t for Monkstown Boxing Club.
“I’ve been through every programme and opportunity that has come my way and have actually become the Inclusion Ambassador for the club.
“I’ve come on leaps and bounds, excelled in areas I never thought I would and continually push myself out of my comfort zone.”
Eager to give something back, Jodie volunteers as part of a team which takes other young people through those same programmes promoting inclusion and diversity.
“My ambition is to work with young people in my own community. Mainly I just want them to see there is opportunity out there. I live in an area with high poverty where drink, drugs and anti-social behaviour have a massive negative impact. I want them to see there is more for them.
“Selfishly, I want them to learn more about disability. I don’t want other young disabled people to face the same isolation that I did.”
She adds: “Monkstown Boxing Club has turned my life around completely. Without it I would still be in the house, stuck in the same place as five years ago with no prospects. It has changed my life without a doubt and I’m a much happier person.
“I don’t think there’s much I wouldn’t tackle now. I never let the fact that I’m disabled stop me.
“I want to push myself as far as I can. My motto is don’t let something defeat you, always keep seeing what you can do next. I never let the fact I’m disabled deter me, whatever the world has to offer I’ll face it head on.
“Most of all, I want to do the best I can for the kids in this area, my heart’s in this club and I hope I will be able to do even half the job that other youth workers are already doing.”
Amy Stewart, Lead Youth Worker at Monkstown Boxing Club, says: “Jodie is such an inspirational young woman, her positive attitude and resilience makes her stand out as a fantastic role model.
“She takes up every challenge and sees it as an opportunity to grow. Before she joined the club, inclusion was something that many of our young people were unaware of.
“Jodie presented different needs when joining the club and taught staff and young people to be more open-minded. Jodie has made them much more conscious of being inclusive and including all young people from the community.
“National Lottery players are crucial in supporting what we do. Without them and The National Lottery Community Fund, we wouldn’t be able to provide our programmes and make such a positive impact on young people, families, and this community. It’s a game changer.”
Amy adds: “To see a young person come into the club, reserved, with no confidence or any real sense of drive, to see them change, believe in themselves, get jobs or go to university, it makes your heart warm.
“Jodie now wants to be a youth worker and she’ll be the best, a real trailblazer. Our job is to empower and inspire young people so that they can be the architects of their own future and Jodie is a powerful example of this. Thanks to National Lottery players and National Lottery Community Fund we can help so many more young people reach their full potential.”
National Lottery players raise over £30m each week for good causes like this throughout the UK.