NFL ace Giovani Bernard took time out ahead of pre-season training with the Cincinnati Bengals to lead a photography workshop with youth homelessness charity Accumulate.

The star Running Back is a keen photographer, and during a trip to London with NFL UK, he visited the Nomadic Gardens community space in Shoreditch to meet a group of young people with experience of homelessness and share his expertise and life story.

These kids need an outlet. For me it was football. Photography could be that ticket for them

“Accumulate does some really cool stuff and I am into photography, so it was cool to be able to partner up and do this workshop together,” Bernard told The Big Issue.

“It is really important to use our platform. It is huge. When I was younger it was tough. My dad had to work multiple jobs to keep a roof over our heads. It was not easy.

“These kids need an outlet. For me, it was football that allowed me to be able to do some amazing things in life and travel this distance. Photography could be that ticket for them.”

It might be a long way from the glamour of American Football’s biggest league to a colourful community space in East London but for Bernard it was a chance to inspire and explore. The clash of urban and natural worlds, with brightly coloured graffitied shacks alongside allotments and gardens, provided a rich tapestry for the participants to use their creativity. 

“This is an amazing place to take photographs,” said Bernard, who is in London to promote a new NFL Academy, which opens in London in September with the aim of helping young people unlock opportunities in life.

“This is my first time over here and it was cool to come somewhere that is not a tourist trap. It’s not Tower Bridge or Big Ben. This is so different.”

Accumulate is a charity that empowers young homeless people through creativity and offers routes into the creative arts. They provide workshops for the residents of hostels across London, and links with Ravensbourne University ensure the young people receive high class tuition. The charity also offers scholarships for young people, who receive support to return to formal education.

Shannon, 22, has recently been awarded an Accumulate Scholarship and starts a diploma at Ravensbourne University in September.

“I have lived in a hostel for 13 months now. It has been difficult. But I have things like this to look forward to. Without opportunities like this I would be going crazy,” she said, taking time out from shooting close-up images of colour clashes.

“I stayed in school until I was in sixth form but I was one of those kids that wasn’t really into education. I wanted to mess around. But since leaving all I have wanted to do is get back into education so this is the perfect opportunity for me.

“Hopefully I will get my diploma and then do a degree and get into advertising and marketing. I left home when I was 18 because I have a bad relationship with my mum, who has mental health issues. I struggled for years until I found this place. Now I know what direction I’m going in and I have things look forward to.”

Damien Roach led the workshop alongside Gridiron star Bernard. He spoke about the importance of creativity, and offering young people the opportunity to find ways to be heard and seen.

“Creative thinking is such a powerful tool both in terms of making things and in life in general,” said Roach.

“Opening up access for these young people to explore and utilise these skills is of huge value, not just for them but for society at large. Today we have been exploring photography as a means for each of the participants to have their point of view and a way of seeing the world shared with others. It is about individuals placing value on their thoughts and experiences.

“Traditional education systems don’t always suit everybody. But what is really sad is that people don’t always get a chance to realise what does suit them – the school experience isn’t that long for some people, so before you know it they have left and haven’t been able to explore. It is great what Accumulate are doing to create opportunities for development. And the link with Ravensbourne University means it is made very tangible and concrete.”

Marice Cumber, who founded Accumulate in 2013, added: “It is really important for our Accumulate participants that they have role models. Giovani had a mentor who provided him with a route into football. He was really successful, went to college, and joined the NFL.

“That is exactly what Accumulate does. It provides scholarships for people to come to Ravensbourne University London and move forwards.

“We are not the only organisation providing creative workshops for people who are affected by homelessness. We work in collaboration with each other. But what is unique about Accumulate is that we are so closely aligned with a university, and that can be a life changer.”

Source: The Big Issue