OUR STORY 2008 - 2023

Iain & Ian

A series of chance events led to Freedom Road Creative Arts (FRCA) being established. It was 2007, and Hull decided to mark MP William Wilberforce’s role in campaigning for legislation that led to the abolition of the international slave trade 200 years earlier.

The Hull Rights and Participation Project (RAPP) was in full swing, empowering children and young people in Hull. Hull RAPP was asked to take part in the bicentenary celebrations. So, a group from RAPP wrote and recorded Song for Wilberforce with the help of Ian Bolton, a youth worker and Iain Thompson who has a background in music and the performing arts.

Nearly 15 years on, it seems fitting that the song, which contains the refrain “there is a light on my side” and talks about there being a “spirit that does not die” led to the birth of Freedom Road.

FRCA has led hundreds of Hull’s most troubled children away from danger and to confidence and it has empowered them to succeed as adults. FRCA’s success seems a fitting legacy for the Wilberforce 2007 project, which aimed to raise debate and celebrate emancipation. It is a noteworthy aside that FRCA actually got its name by accident.

The ever-busy Iain Thompson had arranged for artwork to be produced to go with the single, Song for Wilberforce, but he didn’t get chance to call the designer back to suggest a name for the group who recorded the song. Iain explains: “Song for Wilberforce needed some art work so I arranged for someone I knew to do it. He kept ringing me and I kept missing his call, so he just called it Freedom Road. The name just stuck.”

Freedom Road had arrived and they were invited first to the House of Commons and then to Oxford University to perform the song. It was at Oxford University that the group got what could be described as it’s “lucky break”. Ian Bolton says: “Jacqui Reed from CREATE Foundation, in Australia, which works with looked-after kids, tapped me on the shoulder, she said, ‘It’s our inaugural youth summit next year and I want them to perform there,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah right, that’ll never happen’.”

On a high from the performance the Freedom Road band travelled back to Hull in the company of the directors of Hull City Council’s Children’s Services department. Ian Bolton explains: “They said that we had to go to Australia and that they would help us. We couldn’t believe what was happening.” Months of fundraising followed including multiple bag packs at supermarkets amongst other things. Both Ian and Iain were concerned about taking a group of troubled children, many of whom had grown up in the care system, on a 25-hour flight.

Iain Thompson explains: “When they kick off, it’s kicking off to breakdown a foster placement, or something serious like that. We drilled it to them for weeks and weeks saying you’re going to get really angry on the plane and it won’t just be us telling you off, it will be an international situation.”

But as luck would have it the plane was only a third full and most of the young people had four seats each and they were able to sleep. The Australia trip was mind-blowing and amongst the many highlights of the adventure was the performance. Ian Bolton recalls: “I looked out of the window and I could see the bridge and the Opera House in Sydney, and I just couldn’t believe it was happening.” He says that the experience was life-changing for the young people who went and that it made him and Iain Thompson realise they needed to do more.

It was at this point that Hull City Council supported Ian and Iain to establish Freedom Road as a charity. It was 2008 and the global financial crisis meant austerity loomed and mass cuts to council services were a dark cloud on the horizon. The foundation of an organisation that could reach children in care and those struggling in poverty and deprivation was well-timed. FRCA has since accessed funding from many organisations to empower young people in Hull who couldn’t afford mainstream provision of creative arts classes.

Iain Thompson said: “Regardless of why the young people come to us the common thread is that people lack confidence. We wanted to give them confidence to go into mainstream settings or to do what they want to do in life.”

Over 1,000 children have benefitted from Ian and Iain’s work in the years that have passed, and at any one time there are around 50 people attending Freedom Road sessions. They also have a long waiting list. Iain Thompson says: “We constantly have a waiting list because once the kids start coming, they don’t want to leave.” Ian Bolton chips in: “We give them a different role at aged 17/18 because they don’t want to leave, and we know the importance of Freedom Road in their life.” Many of the students become mentors to younger children at the charity’s sessions and some go on to help with the running of the charity.

Ian and Iain have always set out to offer consistency to the young people. Iain Thompson says: “We have worked with children that have had parents that feed them by pushing food under their bedroom door, or there might be violence in the family or there's a threat from a family member, so they’ve been moved into care, or their family don’t have the time or the means to send their children to sessions.

“Their lives are turbulent and they are having to be an adult before they are an adult. We offer somewhere calmer, where they can behave like a kid for two hours or more. I think that’s the big thing about why Freedom Road feels like a family. We’re the adults in the room and they know that for that short time they don’t have to be the adults in the room and because of that they kind of trust us.”

Ian Bolton says they are determined that Freedom Road should always offers young people an outlet to play and a support network that acts like a family. For this reason, weekly bus fares are dished out and food is served so that there is no barrier to coming to the class. Ian Bolton says that he worries about getting repeat funding for Freedom Road, not because of his own wage, but because he says: “We’d lose contact with these kids that need help.”

He is emotional when he talks about it and he admits that he finds it hard to switch off from thinking about the young people who go to Freedom Road as they are in need of constant support as they grow into adults. He says: “When we went to Australia we had a send off from the Guildhall, in Hull, there were parents and carers saying good bye and I was on the back of the bus with one of the young people and his carer didn’t come to wave him off and I remember him saying "bye nobody”, and you just think…why didn’t they bother? Even now it gets to me. How can you do that? That’s a prime example of why we run Freedom Road. It’s those kind of things we never forget.”

There is a joke at Freedom Road that when you join you have to go through the induction of singing Valerie. It’s a light hearted thing which comes from a Freedom Road regular, but if you listen to them singing Valerie it’s noticeable that song contains a message that embodies the Freedom Road sprit. It says: “Why don’t you come over,” It seems that Ian and Iain have been inviting people to come on over to Freedom Road for 15 years and they have been offering them a way out, a chance, and people have taken that chance.

Over the next chapters of this book you can read about the stories of 13 Freedom Road graduates. It is interesting to see that there are overlaps between many of their stories. Many struggled through loss and deprivation and then acted out to try and fit in to a school system that couldn’t offer them the necessary shelter. Now many of them are following in the footsteps of Freedom Road staff, giving light to young people in dark places and showing troubled teenagers that deep within them they hold a spirit that will set them free.

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charity number:1124982