Footie hero Marcus Rashford surprised a teenage boy living on the breadline with a birthday Zoom call.
The England striker called the football-mad lad after meeting him at a community centre that helps families struggling with food poverty.
The 23-year-old Manchester United star met single mum Howa Jalloh and her two boys Damayri, 15, and Nathaniel, six, at Evelyn Community Centre in south London.
Teaching assistant Howa, 32, has been relying on the centre over the past year to ensure her boys don’t go hungry.
Howa, who was homeless in 2013 while she was pregnant with Nathaniel, told the Mirror: “They had a one-to-one on how Damayri can improve his football training and his drive.
“Marcus was really rooting for him and praising him. One bit of advice I really appreciated was he said to him: ‘Make the right choices, you might have some friends who make the wrong choices, but you say this is not what I want to be part of it, I am walking away, I am going to go – make the right choices. Make the right choices on how you want your life to be and how you portray yourself.’
“He told him to choose his friends wisely, and if he knows his friends are doing something that is not right, he needs to walk away and come home. For Marcus to say that to him, it really helped me for Damayri to hear that not just from me but someone like Marcus. Marcus kept telling him to be himself and not put too much pressure on himself – be grounded, be yourself, make the right choices.”
Rashford paid struggling families who have been living on the breadline over the pandemic a surprise visit at the Lewisham community centre, telling them: “Never feel like anyone is looking down on you because they don’t know what it feels like to have to survive.”
He met families and volunteers who have been relying on free school meal vouchers following his tireless crusade at persuading the Government to continue providing free school meals to disadvantaged children.
Evelyn Community Centre messaged the star on Twitter asking for his help, after seeing his inspiring free schools meals campaign.
Rashford forced Boris Johnson into a U-turn following a campaign to continue providing free school meals during the holidays.
The Government will now spend about £400m, including a £170m fund to be distributed through local councils to help families with food and bills
Rashford was awarded an MBE for services to vulnerable children during the pandemic as well as an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester. He has also been honoured with a special BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.
In a new BBC documentary, Marcus Rashford: Feeding Britain’s Children, Damayri is seen telling Rashford: “It’s very upsetting seeing my mum upset sometimes, and thinking: ‘How is she going to give us this meal today?'”
When Damayri tells Rashford he has been cleaning windows and doing other odd jobs in the community to help his mum, the footballer says: “To me it’s refreshing to hear you say that. Never feel like anyone is looking down on you because they don’t know what it feels like to have to have to survive. Because when you have to survive you do whatever you ha because they don’t know what it feels like to have to survive.”
Following their meeting, Rashford arranged to surprise aspiring footballer Damayri with the personal call on his 15th birthday.
Howa told the Mirror that Rashford’s words have given youngsters living in child poverty “immense hope”.
“Marcus is so humble,” she said.
“Damayri said to me: ‘He could be my big brother.’ He can’t stop talking about him.
“I can’t put into words how he has helped us – he is out there speaking to normal working people, he understands what we’re going through and he has been there and come from there.
“Marcus speaking to Damayri has really opened his eyes a bit more and made him realise he can do whatever he wants to do, regardless of his circumstances, he just needs to stay focused. And I am really grateful for that.”
The community centre which features in the documentary was set up last year to help distribute food for families in need. A family pays £3.50 and gets £20 worth of food in return.
Evelyn co-founder Natasha Ricketts said the child poverty campaigner has been a “lifeline” for families in the area.
Natasha, 47, who grew up in child poverty in south east London, said: “Covid has seen so many more families struggling this year, due to unemployment and furlough.
“I can’t explain how much of a difference Marcus’s campaigning has made.”
- Marcus Rashford: Feeding Britain’s Children is available on BBC iPlayer now.