Bearpark community boxing gym run by an ex-criminal Gary Crooks, is a haven for local youths

23rd March 2016

Bearpark is an ex-colliery town that was badly affected by the miners strikes, and the ultimate demise of coal mining in England in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Gary grew up with little education in a time of severe austerity, and spent his childhood stealing food and coal to stay warm and fed. Over the years this escalated into a life of crime, and Gary was given two prison sentences for violent crimes against the person. In his second prison term Gary learned to read and write, and eventually began to realise his self worth.

Now, years later Gary has turned his life around and uses his respected and influential position in the community he grew up in to discourage young people from taking the path in life he chose.

Since the making of our short film in 2014 Gary has become joint founder of Positive Directions NE, and has this summer won a two year contract with HMP Durham. His company is tasked with motivating inmates to make use of the various training and educational programmes available to them. This is considered a good step towards positive rehabilitation.

Gary uses our film as a unique way to communicate his background with the inmates, and has at times received a standing ovation. Once the inmates realise Gary was once in their position, they begin to trust him. For many inmates Gary is the only person they’ve ever met who’s been successful in turning their life around. Positive Directions NE believe our short film was instrumental in winning the contract with HMP Durham.

Since the original film, MadeGood has kept a strong relationship with Gary and the Bearpark boxing community, and are now about to embark on a more ambitious, feature length project.

Gary on how our film has helped in inspire inmates to turn their life around.

The Bearpark community boxing gym has a strong relationship with the more professionally run Unity Gym in Durham. Gary accepts everyone who walks through the door in his gym, and those more serious about wanting to fight in the ring will be referred to Paul Hubber for an intensive set period training programme.

Bearpark Boxing Club

Gary Crooks is a larger than life character that everybody knows, and everybody respects. He’s an honest person with nothing to hide, and though he’s not proud of his past, he’s willing to talk about it, and that earns him the trust of those he works to help. Gary works at the gym as much as a personal mentor as he does a boxing coach, and the community he’s created is a one of a kind haven for those who attend.

Old time friend and partner to Gary’s sister, Paul Hubber works at the more spacious and better equipped Unity Gym in Durham. Fighters wanting a little more are referred to Paul for expert training, though will typically continue to train at Gary’s community gym in parallel. Working like a tag-team partnership, Gary and Paul regularly lean on each other to provide their fighters with the professional and emotional support they need.

Ross Oakes is a former prison warden and Gary’s most unlikely business partner, at Positive Directions NE. Gary and Ross work together delivering a programme to prison inmates, motivating them engage with educational and training programmes within the prison. The fact that Gary was once in prison himself, but is now on the other side delivering training with someone like Ross, is an inspiration to inmates.


“Making a clean break was just not realistic. People would still ask if I could beat someone up for money, or if I could buy them cheap drugs. Often people would tell me about an easy robbery or where I could can steal something, but the answer’s no and it’s as simple as that. It’ll continue to be no because I’m just not that person anymore. There have been people from my past wanting to extract revenge on me for the things I’ve done. People don’t believe I’ve changed and they think I’m a police informer, there have been ‘altercations’. But that’s fine, I can’t change how people think about me, or what they say about me. I just changed how I thought about myself. I started a company and we’ve won a contract with HMP Durham to go into the prison and help people in remand to engage with the institution. Often there will be programmes to help the inmates, so our job is to motivate them to actually make use of what’s available to them.”


“Growing up in Durham in the 90’s in Sacriston, if someone asked you out for a fight you couldn’t say no. You just can’t, or you’re a coward. Word got round that I was an alright fighter and when someone asked, you’ve just got to go outside with them. There was a heroin epidemic in the area at the time and I didn’t even have a lock on my shed. Nothing ever got touched, do you know what I mean? But I’ve never stolen anything in my life, and I’ve done a lot of good in this community. I wouldn’t class myself as a criminal, I know a lot of policemen who are more dishonest than I am. And nobody really asks me to fight any more because I’ve got a alright reputation as a decent person. My Nanna had a saying before she died, “If you fly with the crows you get shot with them”, and it’s true isn’t it? If I went down the bus station now and started drinking cider, or taking heroin or cocaine, I’d be much more likely to get into trouble than I would if i was sitting here talking with you.”


“I received a call from the police about a supermarket I used to manage. When I turned up there was a hole in the wall where somebody had removed the bricks and cut a hole in the metal sheet to get into the cabinet holding all the valuable items. The police dealt with the robbery and I never thought anything more of it. It was only years later once Gary and I had become business partners that I realised it was him who’d carried out that robbery.”

“We work a lot with prisoners who don’t want to engage, because it’s difficult to break the negative cycle of someone who doesn’t want to leave their cell. Gary’s story is an inspiration, it’s a true rags to riches story- an armed robber turned legitimate business leader. We break the ice using the story of the robbery, which the inmates love because it’s funny, but also because they know they can trust Gary. He’s a positive role model and an inspiration.”

“When I lived with my Mum she was never there. She’d pick boyfriends over me, or spend her time monged out on the sofa on medication. We moved from place to place because she couldn’t pay the rent, and if my Dad gave her money she’d spend it on cigarettes or something else for herself. My brother would rob and steal just so that we had money to feed ourselves.

I was fighting all the time, and there always had to be a male teacher there just in case I kicked off. My dad said I should get into boxing, so I started coming to Bearpark. As you can see it’s not the world’s best, it’s a shit hole really but it’s good. Gary’s an absolutely class trainer and he’s always there for me no matter what, so is my Dad and Mandy.

I don’t need to get into trouble any more, what’s the point? I keep my head down and come to the gym. I’ve never been in trouble with the police and I’ve seen the problems it’s caused with my brother and my Dad, so I never intend to.”

“If I didn’t have this gym I’d be at the house sniffing coke smoking weed and drinking, if that’s not too hardcore for you? But it’s the truth. There’s nothing round here for men like me in our 30’s, no industry, no jobs, nothing. I had mental health problems of my own but eventually Gary convinced me to come down. Since then I’ve lost weight, my confidence has come round and I’ve learned to interact with people again. I went through a stage of not talking to people and I never left the house for two years, but I’ve made friends here and we’ve all chipped in to make this place our own. I come every day and it’s as normal as getting out of bed and having a cup of tea. I’m on first name terms with everybody here and we’re like a big family, it’s fantastic. Thanks to Gary he’s given me a chance, got me in here, cleaned my act up and I’ve made myself feel better.”

“I fit in champion with the lads down at Bearpark boxing gym, I love them and they love us, we’re like a little family. I even had a bearpark badge on my kit last night to show my appreciation to Gary and the group. We’ve got our own little Facebook group and I just fit in, I’m just like one of the lads sometimes.

Gary is someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and he’ll do anything to anyone. He’s more than just a coach he’s a friend, he’s always been a friend and he listens to me. If there’s anyone who I need to thank it’s him for believing in me. I wish I’d gone to him when I was poorly and dealing with the demons in my head, I think he’d have helped me because he’s willing to help anyone.

Gary’s just a legend, everyone loves Gary.”

“There’s a lot of good people in here. No matter what walk of life you come from, you can come in here and train. We’ve got cage fighters and boxers, people with mental health problems and physical problems, everyone’s welcome to come and train in here. It means everything to everyone who comes in here. You can mix with people in here that won’t judge you at all, and everybody helps everybody out.

Gary’s a friend of mine from years ago, I’ve known him the best part of my life. He’s somebody that everyone in here looks up to. He helps everybody and he’s put himself out big style to do it, just to prove that somebody can turn their life around like that to help other people.”

“We’re in Bearpark community gym that I’ve been coming to for only a short time but I’ve been welcomed with open arms, myself and my little boy. It’s a charity place and all the equipment has been donated, but it’s the people who are fantastic. I came from the country which has a different culture really, but I came here to the city and I’ve been welcomed. Lovely people.”

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