Mel Woodards has recently been awarded the Helen Rollason Award for Inspiration and has even received a special citation from David Cameron – but she hasn’t always been so appreciated.
For years she suffered terrible abuse by her husband and lived in constant fear of verbal and physical violence – until the day she took it upon herself to finally say enough is enough and to take her two children, Charlie and Isobel and leave for good.
After this came years of further distress at the hands of her ex-husband who harassed her relentlessly – and so countless court visits and restraining orders ensued, along with the constant fear for the safety of her children.
However, after years of legal struggles, fear and depression she got through it – and now Mel attributes her wellbeing and indeed, her survival, to her volunteer work. “Football literally saved my life”, she says.
Her involvement in grassroots football was actually only minimal at the start – simply collecting subs for her son Charlie’s team, the Milton Nomads in Somerset. But with persistent work she rose to become coach, chief fundraiser and then club chairwoman, as she successfully battled to reverse the fortunes of the club which was in disarray.
Her tenacity was demonstrated further when, faced with a male-dominated Somerset football league and tight regulations, she identified a niche for 5-a-side football for seven to eight year-olds; as well as 7-a-side for nine to ten year-olds.
She filled the gap by starting her very own Somerset North Youth Football League (SNYFL) – or ‘sniffle’ as she likes to call it – and began weekend tournaments and mini-leagues where her impressive understanding of the FA Youth Development Review delivered her unbridled success.
This achievement is quickly measured by the fact that she expected just 200 players at the start of the league’s second season – in fact it turned out to be 1,100.
But despite Mel’s accomplishments in coaching and league management, her story is mostly a testament to her strength of character and her feeling of responsibility to inspire those around her.
She says: “I’ve gained the confidence to tell anyone who’ll listen what happened to me and if that story and this wonderful award makes one woman suffering domestic abuse say ‘Right, I’m leaving him’ or one person volunteer, then it’s worth it.”
The power of grassroots football to change lives and to bring people together remains as strong as ever, and few know this better than Mel.
She is expecting even more players to join SNYFL next season.
Mel Woodards collaborates with sports volunteer charity, Join In. Visit their website here to find out how you can get involved in sports projects near you.