You may have noticed the circular bench which sits on the pavement near the main Dulwich Village intersection, outside the hairdressers, Harold George. You might recall that the bench is dedicated to the memory of Lt Mark Evison, who died in Afghanistan, on 12 May 2009. But you may not know Mark’s story, nor of his legacy, the Mark Evison Foundation.
Mark was a local lad who mostly went to local schools, the Prep and the College, before winning a music scholarship to Charterhouse for his Sixth Form years. He was known as an easy-going, active child, often in scrapes, but always well-meaning.
As a teenager and young adult, Mark embraced as many adventurous activities as he could, but he never cast off his thoughtful, gentler side, loving music making and appreciating the arts. He was intelligent and charismatic, and had a wide circle of friends from all walks of life. In the army, he was loved and respected by his men and his fellow officers alike.
Mark was always in pursuit of the ultimate physical challenge. On one occasion, he ran 500 miles across the Pyrenees; on another, he trekked for two weeks on the Norwegian glaciers. The successful planning and completion of such journeys gave him the confidence for leadership that he showed in abundance in his years in the Army. As befits an Old Alleynian (a former pupil of Dulwich College), there was something Shackletonian about Mark Evison.
Mark was shot while leading a British Army patrol in Helmand Province. Despite serious wounds, he remained conscious and continued to issue orders to his men. Gunner Stuart Gadsby was awarded a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for carrying Mark back to base under heavy fire. The entire patrol reached base, but Mark then fell unconscious waiting for a delayed helicopter. He was finally brought back to Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham, on a life support machine. That machine was switched off on 12 May 2009 when he was pronounced brain-dead as a result of bleeding. He was 26.
His closest school friends were with Mark at Selly Oak Hospital and, by the time of his funeral, the Mark Evison Foundation had been born. Those friends wanted Mark’s name and values to live on in a charitable organization that would seek to promote the personal, emotional and physical development of young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Mark’s story, particularly as told by his mother, Margaret, inspires all of the young people who apply for awards from the Foundation every year.
The Foundation invites 16- and 17-year olds to take complete ownership of their projects, either as groups or individuals. That is, they choose their own challenges, plan them, pitch them to the MEF’s schools’ team and carry them through, with only the lightest touch of mentoring and advice. The MEF awards take them out of their classrooms and beyond the syllabuses that constrain so much of their learning. Many award winners describe their MEF challenges as the most impactful experiences of their young lives. They all comment on the confidence and courage they gain, they value the chance to hone nascent aptitudes and develop new skills. They learn to take on leadership roles, to work as a team and to think laterally. Awards are given for physical challenges of the sort Mark loved, but there are impressive creative and technological challenges undertaken too.
What I have seen, time and again, as a trustee of the Foundation, is that its projects help instil grit, confidence, independence, resilience and self-reliance in those that undertake them. Indeed, even the application process, and particularly the interview at which they pitch their ideas, can be important. All students are inspired by the ethos of the Foundation, and successful applicants help ‘spread the word’ by talking to younger students.
The sense of achievement students feel is clear in the powerful accounts which they write afterwards. (You can read a plethora of uplifting stories on the Foundation’s website: www.markevisonfoundation.org.) Young people’s horizons are widened, their plans become more ambitious. When you see the UCAS forms or CVs of any of the award winners it’s clear that it’s not just the project in itself that has been important, but the life-lessons they’ve learned from it. While the MEF awards explicitly steer clear of supporting academic projects, it’s evident that the knock-on effects on academic performance are important, if harder to measure than other benefits.
The Foundation likes to offer opportunity where little exists, and so offers an outreach programme to all the maintained schools in the London area. In 2017 the schools’ team visited 45 schools to give assemblies to Year 12 students, at which the opportunities available and the process of applying were explained. As a result, over 2000 students expressed interest, and 800 attended follow-up sessions: 112 applications (by individuals or groups) were submitted, and finally 49 awards were made, directly benefiting 162 students, many of whom are from very disadvantaged backgrounds. This year the numbers are set to double.
Specific Memorial Awards are offered in the two senior schools Mark attended. At Dulwich College, not a week passes when an opportunity to engage beyond the syllabus - to engage in what I call “free learning” - is offered by local, national and international organizations. But there is a special place in the Dulwich calendar for the visit of Margaret Evison and the introduction of the MEF Alleynian Challenge Award to each successive Year 11 cohort. They are proud of their association with a brave old boy who died serving his country, when he was not much older than they are, and they understand the importance of challenges that they make for themselves rather than have set up for them.
The Mark Evison Foundation also gives Major Awards (with a different process, and expenses funding of up to £5,000) to young people aged between 19 and 25, to help them pursue more challenging goals. Again, details of these awards can be found on the Foundation’s website, but I would prefer to leave the last word about the core work of the Foundation with a teacher who is in no doubt about the benefits of the MEF awards in the challenging environment of his school:
The opportunity that the MEF provides young people to take part in ‘adventures’ they would not normally be able to afford or, indeed, even think about is unique. Margaret’s assemblies inspire whole cohorts to think about their dreams and then find a way to realise them. The process of pitching an idea is a fantastic launch pad for other things they will apply for - universities, jobs, apprenticeships. The budgetary rigour required of the students is great too. And I also value the opportunity afforded for students to find ways to ‘give back’ to others who follow them.
Since the establishment of the Foundation, the schools’ team has spoken to nearly ten thousand schoolchildren and almost a third of those pupils attend follow up sessions at which they can begin to plan their projects. It is projected that over 100 awards will be made this year, benefitting approximately 300 young people. For many of the recipients, the effect will be transformative.