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A personal account of the Jimmy Mizen Foundation from Keith Everson

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

In 1986 I was invited to join my brother to become a Freemason and a member of Grove Park Kent Lodge. During my tenure I have been fortunate and humbled to have been Master of the Lodge twice (1994 and 2001) as well as various other offices of which I am currently Lodge Secretary. As a mason I have been involved in much charitable work both masonic and non-masonic, as many of us are, however in 2012 my involvement in the charity sector took on a new meaning to me when I was elected to become the chair of the Jimmy Mizen Foundation. I would like to share a little of how this charity was formed and why it has had such an impact on my life.

Barry and Margaret Mizen lost their son Jimmy five years ago. He was only 16 when he was murdered by a 19-year-old during an unprovoked attack in a bakery in Lee, southeast London. It was a senseless crime that shocked the nation.

But the horrific nature of the attack is not the only reason that the crime is remembered. Almost the whole country, it seemed, was moved by the quiet dignity of Jimmy’s parents. In the immediate aftermath they spoke eloquently of their grief and love for their son, and about how their faith allowed them to feel empathy for the family of Jake Fahri, who was convicted of Jimmy’s murder.

They called for peace and forgiveness, not retaliation, and then they asked a listening Britain to make society more safe, courteous and fair. These seemingly instinctive remarks - and the courage the Mizens showed at a time of great pain - meant that the horrific crime has had a positive legacy.

Barry and Margaret, devout Catholics and parents to eight other children, have since become high-profile campaigners, called upon for their unique view of the criminal justice system as they set out to change young lives. The couple, who still live in southeast London, have visited more than 200 schools and pupil referral units throughout England in the years since their son’s death, speaking to thousands of children about violence and the consequences of crime.

Their close working relationship with the nation’s schools started just a few months after Jimmy’s death, when a friend who worked as a school chaplain at St Michael’s Catholic College in Bermondsey, southeast London, asked them to come in and tell their story. Neither had done anything like it before, but both admit that they have since ‘grown’ into their new role.

‘We are so fired-up to want to do things for Jimmy. We want to do it; we feel like we have something to say,’ Barry says. They are determined to get their message across: ‘A peaceful response will bring about change.’

When they are with pupils, Barry and Margaret first explain what happened to Jimmy and share pictures of their son. They stress the importance of caring for one another. Children respond to the Mizens’ message, often listening in rapt silence. But pupils can and do ask questions. Among the most frequent are how the couple managed to forgive, if they cry much and how their eight other children are coping. Sometimes pupils want to hug the couple, and many come up to them afterwards to try to express their sadness about Jimmy’s death.

After the sessions, teachers often comment that some of the children had initially complained about having to sit through ‘another’ talk on knife crime.

‘When they came in for the first time to speak to Year 11, they were phenomenal,’ says Grainne Grabowski, head of St Michael’s. ‘They spoke calmly and quietly, but you could hear a pin drop because the impact of their story was so strong. They had a completely different approach and children were very touched by what they had to say.’

Barry and Margaret have since returned to St Michael’s several times; pupils recently made them a picture of Jimmy composed of individually decorated tiles. Speaking to the couple, it soon becomes clear that endlessly reliving the horrific events of May 2008 is not easy for them or their family, but they are determined to create something good in Jimmy’s name.

Before Jimmy’s death, neither of his parents ‘had spoken to half a dozen people’ publicly. Now they have made speeches to thousands. The response to Jimmy’s case, Margaret says, has helped them to do this. ‘If you share something personal, it provides a safe place for another person to do the same; it allows them to open up.’

The Mizens’ campaign is not complicated. Nor is it revolutionary. They simply want children and teenagers to contribute to their community, to make it a safer, better place.

The Jimmy Mizen Foundation

Through the Jimmy Mizen Foundation, the charity created for their work, they have encouraged teenagers to organise ‘100 days of peaceful events’ to coincide with the Olympic and Paralympic Games. At the end of these 100 days, on 28 October 2012, they held a concert in London, with tickets given as a reward to children.

‘We want to encourage young people to do something for their schools and local communities,’ says Barry, who still works in the family shoe repair business. ‘We find when they are given responsibility, they grab it with both hands and are excited by it. All of us have a responsibility towards our communities.’

Such work has made the Mizens household names and brought celebrity backers for their campaign. London Mayor Boris Johnson, broadcaster Dermot O’Leary, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Saracens rugby team have signed a ‘Release the Peace’ car, which is currently travelling around schools, spreading the message.

‘For some children, the only stability they have in life is at school,’ says Barry.

The couple are insistent that discipline in schools should not be confrontational, and should instead be about firm guidelines. One of the most striking aspects of their involvement in schools is their grasp of the day-to-day details. They explain how early intervention, including ‘managed moves’ of children to different schools, can benefit them.

‘It is so important to catch children early on. If you speak to teachers, they are able to look at their class and make accurate judgements about which children have particular problems,’ Barry adds.

The Mizens feel Jake Fahri’s problems should have been spotted sooner. Instead they built up ‘little by little’ and he ended up taking their son’s life. For this reason, the Mizens also visit adult jails and young offender institutions.

‘So many people stay locked up for life. We say we should prevent them from getting there. Society should be ashamed by the number of young people who get to that situation and have ended up committing horrendous crimes,’ Margaret says.

Rather astonishingly, Barry adds that ‘children in these situations (often) have a lot of natural leadership. We should help them use their skills for something positive rather than negative.’ It is this kind of extraordinary observation - and their determination to see the best in some of society’s worst - that makes the Mizens remarkable and has, most recently, seen them team up with St John Ambulance, through Youth United, to start to provide joint workshops that benefit from their testimony and the practical first aid skills of St John to increase the number of leaders participating within uniformed youth organisations. They have optimistically targeted 500 new leaders.

Following Jimmy’s death, his parents made a pact not to cry in public because they ‘don’t want people’s pity’.

‘We can scream and shout but it won’t bring anybody back,’ says Margaret, quietly. But in their work, they make a very real difference to those who are still alive.

Barry and Margaret Mizens actions, I feel, are closely linked to the values of Freemasonry. However, I do not know whether I could have responded in the same way if I had lost one of my children or grandchildren in such tragic circumstances. Additionally, I am in awe of how they found the strength to act upon those values every day over the last five years through the Jimmy Mizen Foundation. What I do know is that being a mason has allowed me to be in a position to help them. Being a mason have given me the skills to manage a culturally diverse team of people with a shared aim. I am thankful to the members of Grove Park Kent Lodge for supporting The Foundation in various fundraising activities.

I take my membership in Freemasonry as seriously as I will take my role as chair of the Foundation, not only because of the responsibilities these jobs include but also because Margaret Mizen is my cousin and the death of her son has had an impact not only on myself but also on my family as a whole.

If you wish to find out more information on the Jimmy Mizen Foundation then please visit www.jimmymizen.org

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