Andy YaxleyComment

TRANSFORMATIONAL FOOTBALL PART 2: TRANSFORMATION IN ACTION

Andy YaxleyComment

Following on from last Friday's piece, another inspirational look at the power of the game.

On June 21st, 2006 Angola met Iran at the 2006 world cup. It wasn’t exactly the kind of game to get everyone talking. If I asked you the score or what happened more than likely you’d have to consult google! But it did have potential consequences within the group. Had Angola, a team who caught a few by surprise at the world cup, won they may have been able to edge past Mexico on goal difference. That said almost 6 years later it is one of the many forgotten world cup games of years past. But in Angola the game will forever be remembered as the game in which Angola scored their first goal at a world cup. A moment of pride and of celebration for the small group of Angolan fans in attendance.

Kyle Weiss, then 13, and his brother Garrett (15) were in attendance that day at Zentralstadion. It was a day that would forever change their lives and the lives of many others. Kyle and Garrett were intrigued by that small contingent of Angolan fans; their loud drumming, dancing and chanting drew them in. So they went to try and meet some after the game. In spite of failing in their bid to finish above Mexico (the game ended in a 1-1 tie) the Angolan fans were upbeat and still gushing over their goal. But as they talked with the Weiss’s conversation moved beyond football to something much more important. They talked of the lengthy civil wars in Angola and how they had torn the country apart. Fans shared how much football meant in their country. Of how it was one of the few positives in many Angolan’s life. They described the whole country as being football mad, people played everywhere and with anything. Often it was a large dirt patch with a ball made of trash.

Kyle and Garrett’s time with the Angolan fans changed them forever. They left thinking that they must be able to do something for the people of Angola. An idea was born. With the help of their friends and their connections with football clubs to send sports equipment over to Angolo. So, after returning to the US, they arranged a meeting at their house with lots of their friends from footballing backgrounds.That was really the night fund a field was born.They don’t remember how or who but someone threw out the idea of building a field for them to use the equipment on. So they did. They raised enough, backed by some local football teams, to go and build a field and distribute equipment.

There was no looking back from there. Fund-a-field has grown dramatically since that day. It’s core focus remains building fields in war torn and poverty affected areas, primarily in Africa, but there has been growth within that. They now work primarily with existing schools having discovered that building the fields in the schools increases school enrollment and school attendance. They’ve also began to branch out beyond Africa and have started a new project in Haiti. Fund-a-field are working with President Martelly’s son building field and stadiums across the nations and developing program’s to teach health and education through football.

Both Kyle and Garrett are studying in Southern California and have found that a useful avenue for the expansion of their charity. Word spreads throughout their colleges and they find themselves able to recruit new volunteers. They’ve even be able to target their recruiting; for example they’ve been able to recruit a few health studies students to help them develop health curriculum to teach football players coming through their program. The success of fund-a-field has really been phenomenal. Recently they captured national attendance when they were awarded a Nickelodeon Halo award, presented to them by non other than David Beckham.

Kyle believes that a lot of their success has been due to the simplicity of their project and innovative fundraising. Their basic fundraising concept is that $1 pays for a small square of a field (100 makes a field). So every $1 you contribute pays for a square, and each square will contain your initials. It’s simple and effective- exactly how a good fundraising project should be. They get even more innovative than that with a special competition where you pay $10 for a square, but with a chance to win $100. How do you win the $100? If a cow decides to poop in your square. They call it “your lucky poop” and it’s been very successful. It’s innovative fundraising at its finest. But the real success story of fund-a-field is not in it’s progressive thinking or halo awards. It’s that a couple of high school students were able to use football to bring positive lives to thousands of kids in Africa and across the world.

From Africa we jump to inner city Atlanta. Whilst need here isn’t on the same level as it is in Angola it’s a place with it’s fair share of problems. Relatively normal problems for the inner city of a large metropolitan area. Here is where we find the wonderful work of a charity called Soccer in the Streets. Their history is interesting and parallels the fascinating development of the beautiful game in the United States. Their work first started as part of the outreach program of the Atlanta Attack. The attack where a part of the brief movement of indoor football teams in the US that filled the gap between the collapse of the NASL and the start of MLS (that’s an extremely interesting period of US football). I talked with Jason Longshore who is the current director of the program. He said that initially a lot of the programs were based on introducing football to Atlanta. Often people had never heard of it or never seen a game. Soccer in the streets played a large role in preparation work for the 1994 world cup and the 1998 world cup. It was kind of a let’s spread the word and get people excited project.

Jason, believes that something changed in the landscape of US soccer several years a go. ESPN and other large networks began to pay a attention to the increasingly popular MLS. Then came Beckham. Whatever your opinion is on the man (believe me I have mine) there is no doubt that he lifted the status of football in America. Here was a mainstream sports star entering a sport that was still lacking that status in US circles. The growth of football has continued in the US with more international stars joining, an increase in quality within the MLS and the national team, and large and loud supporter groups all adding to the attraction. That growth has enabled Soccer in the Streets, and charities like them, to adapt their focus.

Now their primary focus is working with underprivileged children and youth to develop life skills and improve employment opportunities. They work primarily in school districts were 70% or more of the students qualify for free lunches. Many of these communities are inhabited by ethnic minorities. As a result another primary focus is on integration and helping to create unity within the different communities. This is particularly prevalent when they are working with refugee communities (primarily Somali, Ethiopian and Burmese). Often times youth in these communities can be fresh off the plane. They know little of American or Western culture and are inundated with large differences. But football is something they know. How wonderful to use it to draw them in and help them to integrate into their new society and equip them for success in education and life.

Soccer in the Streets has two primary programs. Positive Choice, which works with elementary school children as an entry level program, and School for Life. School for life is a more structured program and works with middle school and high school students. It creates opportunities for more competitive football with teams they play in leagues and tournaments. One of the main focuses of the program is preparing participants for a successful life in the after school world. In addition to their 2 or 3 weekly practices students have bimonthly classroom times. In the classes they will practice job interviews, write resumes, learn how to use social media to increase their employ-ability and other activities to improve their chance of success.

Soccer in the Streets has enjoyed a degree of recognition and being able to connect with FIFA 3 sending some of their students to play in pre world cup friendly tournaments. Jason’s favourite story of success is that of DeAndre Harrison who was so successful in their programs that they were able to hire him back into a key position as program coordinator. DeAndre was so thankful for how the program changed him that he was committed to helping change others like him. He stepped into a unique role as a mentor and inspiration to the youth of the program because he was able to tell them that he had been where they were. He’s commitment and energy for the program is deep. “I can’t stop now - I’m too invested into kids’ lives,” said Harrison in a recent interview. There are other success stories for soccer in the streets. Stories of employment, students becoming coaches and even university scholarships. This is really transformational football; empowering people through the sport to be able to improve their own lives. If it can work in the USA, were football is still firmly a secondary sport, then surely it can work in the mass of countries were football’s popularity is unrivaled.

North of the border, in Canada, is the current headquarters for a work which began in the US. It’s based in Canada because that’s where it’s founder, professional footballer Jeb Brovsky, lives. Jeb has recently transferred across the nation after moving from the Vancouver Whitecaps, where he made 24 appearances, to MLS debutant Montreal Impact. Peace Pandemic, or at least the idea of Peace Pandemic, started in 2009 when Jeb was playing at the University of Notre Dame. He devoted a whole summer to coming up with a concrete plan to create a hybrid organization of his two biggest passions, Football and Social Change. In November of that year the organization was incorporated as an official nonprofit. It’s worth noting that, whilst Jeb’s career as a professional football player has helped Peace Pandemic’s growth, he started it as a college student who wasn’t sure of his future in the game.

Jeb told me that he started Peace Pandemic because he strongly believes “that football can be used as a medium for social change and peace”. Hope and belief like this provide the fuel for that social change to even be a remote possiblity and it's something that ties most of us who work in these areas together. We believe that things can get better! Peace Pandemic's goals are simple enough. They seek to empower and connect youth worldwide through nonviolent, inspirational mediums. Looking to create the next generation of peaceful leaders and helping them along their way to a better life for themselves.
Peace Pandemic offers 3v3 soccer tournaments in the United States and Canada to raise awareness of international issues while connecting North American children to others worldwide. These tournaments fund international camps for boys and girls. The international camps look to involve the local community in empowering their own children through football and sharing the aspirational value of the sport. In December Peace Pandemic held boys and girls camps in the India cities of Delhi, Jharkhand and Goa. India has been their primary focus for international work. Plans are in the works to expand to South Africa, Guatemala and Israel/Palestine. At the camps, Peace Pandemic's Health Staff give children the opportunity to meet with them individually about any injuries or ailments they might be having. Aside from the individual meetings, meetings are held with boys and girls separately about the inspirational aspect of football and community.

One of the main focuses for the boys is the treatment of the women in their lives (a real challenge within some of the cultures they are working in). For the girls the focus is on the aspirational value in football and getting into a team atmosphere where they feel safe and supported. Peace Pandemic places a lot of value in working together with other non profits in the areas they travel to. Jeb believes that cohesion between non profits will help them bring better social change. In the interview his passion for this particular area came across strongly. It’s a belief that I hold too. Where there is a common goal, of social improvement and transformation of communities, then there is a lot that can be achieved through working together.

Jeb also told a story that highlights the impact that works like Peace Pandemic can have even beyond their target audience. It’s about a man named Manoj, Jeb’s taxi driver for a visit to India. Manoj took Jeb to the football camps everyday in his beat up white car. But he became more than a Taxi driver. Everyday he would collect the footballs and do whatever he could to help at the camp. It was evident he loved children and cared about the work Peace Pandemic was doing. On the final day of camp Manoj came up to Jeb with tears in his eyes and, through a translator, he told him “I was so inspired by what you and your organization are doing for these children through football, that I saved up and bought my 10 year old boy his very first football. Will you sign it for him?”. Jeb almost broke in to tears. In the middle of all the children and youth whose lives were impacted by the work of Peace Pandemic lay one middle aged father who was changed just as much.

The potential for football to change lives is very evident when you look around and consider it’s popularity. The credentials are there too. Most professional level football clubs are actively involved in projects in their local communities and many have efforts which reach to distant shores. National and international football associations frequently run and help with charities. Then there are the masses of football and sport related charities founded by people who love the game. Just search football charities on google and you’ll find 25 million results. Credentials galore. Football and charity are seemingly made for each other. But does having an array of charities really mean that football is changing the world?

What I have come to believe is this; football alone will not bring changes that we seek. However, it is a vessel that creates opportunities that is unrivaled. Football will not transform and change in need communities. People who love the game and have a passion to bring positive transformation might use football as an avenue to bring the change that they seek. It won’t be through FIFA, Real Madrid or other large footballing powers. They may provide the financing or the publicity but ultimately those kind of projects fall into the same kind of category as charities from companies like Walmart or Microsoft. They do a lot of good, but entangled in that good is a mess of publicity and self preservation. Not to mention that many of these kind of schemes fall on the philosophy of the rich giving to the poor, not empowering the poor to change and develop themselves. That is the key to genuine and sustainable transformation. When the local community is empowered to be a part of the transformation process then it will most certainly be more real and longer lasting. Football can be incredibly empowering and that’s where it’s potential to be an agent to transformation lies.

There is one last thing to conclude from these two articles. We saw several of the charities started by college students and even high school students. The implications of this are pretty clear to me. We love the world’s most global game. Most of us probably have a pretty good understanding of the game and no doubt some of you are good players. This means that in our hands we have a gift in our hands. It’s up to us what to do with it. But may I suggest that you let these stories inspire you. That you might consider being a part of the revolutionaries he seek to use this beautiful game to change the world. It can be as simple as helping to coach a team from an underprivileged neighbourhood. All the way up to starting your own charity (if a couple of high school students can do it- I suggest you can too!). As we concluded earlier any transformation that football can bring to the world will be done through people. Perhaps one of those people could be you?

Andy is on Twitter @andyyax

Charities Mentioned:

Funa A Field: twitter: @FUNDaFIELD website:
fundafield.org

Peace Pandemic: twitter: @PeacePandemic website: peacepandemic.blogspot.com

Soccer in the Streets: twitter: @soccerstreets website: soccerstreets.org

 

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