By Hannah Clarke
The Newham All Star Sports Academy (NASSA) has been enlightening young lives for over 15 years, but founder and chief executive Natasha Hart MBE admits it was never on her agenda when she moved to England from her home country of Russia 30 years ago.
NASSA is a sports academy set up to keep young people engaged and motivated in the London borough of Newham and the surrounding areas.
Originally created as a voluntary organisation in 2005 after Hart started taking her two sons to play basketball in the park, NASSA was then founded as a charity the following year.
“I am actually a girl who arrived in the UK 30 years ago with no English. NASSA certainly wasn’t on my list of things to do,” said Hart, whose son Teddy Okereafor now plays for Bristol Flyers and the Great Britain national team.
“I am not a professional, I am not a businesswoman, I’m just a mother who took my kids on a trip to the park one day.
“Within a couple of weeks with my two, there were 30 or 40 others. So obviously there was a need, a demand. The kids definitely wanted to belong to something.”
NASSA aims to create awareness and understanding of the opportunities that exist for young people, with the overriding goal to provide an alternative to engaging in anti-social behaviour.
Despite starting from a small game in the park NASSA has grown to deliver sessions Monday to Friday in different parts of east London, while academy volunteers go into schools and run assemblies alongside teaching children about their ‘Carry a Basketball Not a Blade (CABNAB)’ campaign.
That campaign was started by Hart’s son Anthony Okereafor after his friend was stabbed to death in a London park in 2008. Since then, the movement has grown to educate 3,000 young people a year.
“It’s about showing young people there is a choice to carry a knife or there is a choice to progress in life. If you stop doing what you are doing, you can still turn your life around,” said Hart.
“Anthony is a living example of that. He was a naughty child growing up, but I am really proud he turned his life around and still delivers.”
In 2015 Hart was made an MBE for services to sport in east London, but along with various other awards NASSA has achieved, including Overall Charity of the Year in 2014, she considers it a team effort.
She added: “We’ve got a few awards in our bag but I believe all of them are me and my team, I don’t count them as mine. They are ours - we’ve done it together.
“We have always called it a NASSA family, and I think the family ethos was always something I insisted on. Coaches, volunteers, everyone grows together - we are one big NASSA family.”