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01 February 2019

Hackney people: Katee Hui

A few days after Katee Hui moved to the UK from Canada in order to study, she bumped into a new friend in the corridor of their shared halls.

"I told her I was going to try out for the football team. She just looked at me and said 'don't do it. It's social suicide. Women don't play football here'," explains Katee.

If only she could see her now. Seven years after launching Hackney Laces, a football club for teenage girls, Katee has been named London's Unsung Hero for 2018 by the BBC, and two sister clubs have launched in other London boroughs, based on her original idea.

"The demand was there, even if everyone told me it wasn't," she adds.

Katee was raised in Hamilton, in Canada. She said: "When we were kids, my mum put my sister and I into lots of sports clubs. But football was the one that stuck. There's something so powerful about being part of a team."

Plus, she was good at it. So good, in fact, that she won a sports scholarship to university. She explains: "I could see that football was an enabler. It could lead to great things, off the pitch as well as on."

In Canada, football is not seen as 'something for the boys'. So she was shocked to arrive in the UK as a young Masters student, and discover how hard it was to find places for girls to play.

She started coaching for Islington Football Development. One day, she passed a couple of girls in a Hackney park, wearing her kit, and they asked where they could play. Katee ended up taking them to Islington with her. It was a slog. Katee had a full-time job. She would finish work, rush to Hackney, pick the girls up, take them to Islington, train, bring them back...

Katee Hui - B

Hackney Laces open training sessions are for girls of any age and ability

She says: "One day, I was sitting on the 73 bus, worried that I was running late and would let the girls down when I thought: this is crazy. I need to set something up here, in Hackney."

So she told the girls to meet her on Stoke Newington Common and bring a few friends. From two girls, it grew to eight, and then 20. Four years later she was back on the 73 bus when her phone rang. She picked it up, and, recalls: "It was the Prime Minister's Office. They said: 'we have someone who wants to speak to you'."

It was David Cameron himself. Katee had won a Point of Lights award, reserved for individual volunteers who have made real change in their community. She says: "I didn't know what to say to him. I had to be like: I'm so sorry, but this is my stop..."

Why does she think Hackney Laces expanded so quickly? "We take girls any age, there are no trials, so it's very welcoming. Plus there's the cliché that if you can't see it, you can't be it," she says.

Once girls realised football was available to them, they jumped straight in. But they also sensed that further opportunities were also available to them. Katee adds: "Our female coaches are also amazing role models. At one stage, half the girls decided they wanted to be an architect, because of one of their coaches."

Katee Hui - B

Katee Hui, who set up Hackney Laces as a football club for girls, was announced London's Unsung Hero in December

Realising that this supportive community was a major strength, Katee decided to launch 'Off The Pitch'. For an hour after each weekly training session, she draws on her extensive network to help the girls with a wide range of issues in their lives.

She says: "They might be doing A-level maths and struggling with statistics, so we'll call our volunteers with expertise in that, and hold a session to help. Or we'll practise for college interviews, or talk about bullying, or mental health."

For the last year, Hackney Laces has partnered with London Football Journey to make even more of these sessions possible, and Katee is confident that the club will go from strength to strength.

She concludes: "I have a full-time job as a strategist in the creative industries. It was never my ambition to do this. But now I know it works, it would seem wrong not to share it, and make sure as many girls as possible get to benefit from it.

"It's all about the little moments. For some of our girls, we are the most stable thing in their lives. One girl mentioned that she has a parents evening coming up in school and one of our coaches, ended up going with her. How cool is that?"

Hackney Laces sessions are free and open to any age group. They run every Thursday, from 6-7pm, on Astro turf pitches at The Petchey Academy, Shacklewell Lane.

Updated: 11 February 2019

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