The Dons Local Action Group interview

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ONE of the proudest and enduring achievements of the fans-owned AFC Wimbledon is the flourishing volunteer Dons Local Action Group and their inspirational caring work in the community. Co-founder Xavier Wiggins tells the DLAG story in this WDSA interview ….

(i) Firstly, how did the Dons Local Action Group (DLAG) come about? Who were initially responsible for its formation and what were the intentions behind it?

Xavier: Craig Wellstead, Cormac van der Hoeven and I had been very active on the Plough Lane Bond. We had a big team in place who had been tirelessly leaflet dropping, standing outside train stations and shopping centres, etc.  We were all on a WhatsApp group. When COVID hit on the 15th March, I messaged the group, suggesting we do something. It went crazy from that point. Five days later we had our first food distribution hub in place and a table outside Morrisons in Wimbledon town centre. We were collecting food from shoppers and the energy-plus willingness to help was incredible. People use the word “humbling” excessively, but this really was. An amazing few days were followed by amazing weeks and months. 

Craig Wellstead – Co-founder
Cormac van der Hoeven – Co-founder
Xavier Wiggins – Co-founder

(ii) Starting out at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic how were those initial weeks/months delivering food to vulnerable and self-isolating residents, establishing collection points and what was the response you all received from the local community?

Xavier: Everyone wanted to help. People were standing outside shops. Driving deliveries. collecting prescriptions. running errands. sorting food at the hub. Getting our social media established. Finding new shops to open new venues. The community really needed something to rally behind. They wanted to do something useful. People were often terrified. Not just the people we were delivering food to but many volunteers as well. Lives were turned upside down. People were falling through the gaps. Our phones were ringing hot. Politicians, media, people who needed help. It was incredible. 

(iii) What other spin-offs did the DLAG evolve into? Thinking what became a perceived need to support children who didn’t have access to a computer at home. Tell us about that initiative and what has developed out of it?

Xavier: Schools obviously had to close but little consideration had been given as to how they could continue their education. The brilliant Siobhain McDonagh MP got in touch and asked if we could help to supply laptops to a temporary homeless shelter. It just went from there. Collecting, wiping disks, restoring and distributing laptops. 

(iv) DLAG also has branched out into sourcing and supplying essential furniture and white goods to local residents. This all obviously takes some organising to arrange pickups and deliveries. Give us a sense of how that all works within this collective?

Xavier: We have a furniture hub and we pretty much ensure that furniture is sourced on demand. In the early days we would put out calls for a washing machine on the WhatsApp groups and within five minutes we’d have 10 pledged. Some of them were from people who just offered to buy them. They trusted us to make sure the goods were going to the people who most needed them. Then we had other disasters. The family who got burnt out of their home and only had the clothes they were standing up in. Paul White, Councillor for Tooting, called us and then sent us a list of everything from pillows to pants. It was a big list. We got pretty much everything on the list in 24 hours. Then. more recently, there was  a gas explosion that killed one and evacuated hundreds in Galpins Road, Thornton Heath. We needed to help in the aftermath of that tragedy in a number of ways. And we help those people fleeing domestic violence with basics as well. 

(v) It is all synonymous of the volunteer work-force ethic that separates the fans-owned AFC Wimbledon from other clubs. Was that a guiding principle among your DLAG cohort?

Xavier: DLAG is a machine. We have clarity of vision and a passionate belief in our impact. People follow that and together we know that a few hours a week can change lives. That is one hell of a driver. The power of a football club’s fan base to unite and do amazing things is immense. We feel a responsibility to our community. It isn’t just Wimbledon fans either. Far from it. But, as a fan, I believe that we don’t take no as an answer. We see the obstacles and smash them down. That’s what we’ve done as a fan base. That’s what we’ve done as DLAG. We have built partnerships with so many great groups. Old Ruts. Old Wimbledonians. Actually, there are just too many to mention. And it provides massive secondary benefit to the football club as well. 

(vi) DLAG has had an amazing reach, it has become an inspirational beacon of what can be done when people get together to help others in these hard times. What recognition/awards have DLAG received throughout its two-plus years of existence?  Give us a sense of how many people are now part of the DLAG community?

Xavier: The trophy cabinet in the museum at Plough Lane is bulging and it is a source of great pride. I won’t remember all of these but off the top of my head: Sports Journalist Awards (alongside Marcus Rashford). BT Openreach Connector Awards. Merton Business Awards Best Charity Awards. Football Business Awards. British Citizen Awards. There are literally loads more of accolades. As for our numbers, since the start we have had over 2000 volunteers involved. Nearly 600 have volunteered so far this year. 

Dons great John Scales and daughter Willow

(vii) Given how all this started out back in March 2020, have you got the support/imprimatur of AFC Wimbledon and where do they also help out? Where do you get the money to keep all this work going? Surely, the club has benefitted from the social work/outreach of DLAG within the community.

Xavier: We have various sources of funding. Our two annual events are vital. The coming sleep out on 3rd December is massive for us and the Family Fun Day is massive too but watch this space on that. We get support from the council, who actually realise that we can operate far quicker in some situations than they are able to. They have been brilliant to us, by the way. Particularly, Merton Council. Lots of people are starting to fundraise for us now by running in marathons and other things. Even just recently a bunch of people from a pub did a walk around eight Youngs Pubs. We want to keep saying yes to those who need us. Be they families or food banks and other charitable entities. But to do that we need money. DLAG isn’t cheap to run. [We don’t really talk publicly about our funding as we fall under the AFCW Foundation. And there are no formally validated figures.] Being honest, I think the club could do more. That isn’t a criticism. It’s just a fact. Now that we have emerged from the pandemic and have settled into beautiful Plough Lane I’d like to see the club throw its full weight behind what we’re doing. There are many positives and people are busy. Let’s see how far we can go. We are getting some really good buy-in from some staff members and I look forward to that becoming more widespread over the next few months. DLAG provides fantastic recognition for the football club. We’ve had many people, who opposed the building of the stadium, now saying that they were wrong and that now they’ve seen what we do they are fully behind it. That makes me, as a Wimbledon fan, pretty emotional. We are creating new fans for the club. We are showing that football clubs can have more meaning than 3pm on a Saturday. 

(viii) Looking back on it all, what gives you the most pleasure/satisfaction from the whole operation?

Xavier: The people. If I ever get down in the dumps about things I just think about the number of people out and about doing stuff for DLAG to support those who desperately need us in these ridiculously tough times. People can be amazing. Truly inspiring. I’ve made friends for life from this. And I want DLAG to continue offering vital support for decades to come. 

(ix) And finally, what is the future of DLAG? Can you see it developing even further within the local community?

Xavier: Yes. Poverty is not going anywhere. We have a crucial part to play and I am really excited about the next chapter for the organisation. We need to remain focused on fighting the effects of poverty. And we need to be brilliant at it. We need to galvanise more great people into helping us. One of my big learnings is how much helping others actually does for your own self-esteem and worth. I hadn’t really considered that at the outset. I want us to lead from the front. To be on the absolute frontline of fighting the effects of poverty. 

[The Dons Local Action Group interview was first published in the November-December 2022 issue of the Wombles Downunder fanzine.  Details on how you can subscribe to Wombles Downunder and read more.]