More than just football coaching...
What’s the point, really? I want to help, but sometimes I’m not sure how I can. After all, I’ve read plenty of articles that say that charities often don’t make a difference…
That was me a few months ago as I considered joining the team going to India to visit the work of The Freedom Project. Over the years I’d had chats with Mike (The Freedom Project Founder and a good mate of mine) about organising a trip to visit and help out with the football programs that The Freedom Project runs. But we hadn’t ever managed to make it happen until this year.
The team consisted of some friends, family and supporters of The Freedom Project Founders, Mike and Liz Newton-Brown, including one of my best mates Niall. He is an avid footballer, just like me.
When considering joining this trip, Niall and I had discussed what the purpose of going was. We both wanted to go and contribute. We wanted to be able to help and serve and make a difference – not just be tourists or spectators in a developing country. Otherwise, why not just donate the money for the trip as a donation to The Freedom Project?
Another thing I’d had to mull over before I went was the impending cultural shock and being confronted with poverty like I’d never seen before. I had travelled to Thailand and Indonesia before but I knew those trips were different – more of a holiday than a service or exposure trip. Thinking about going to India, I was aware that I did not want to just feel sympathetic to the people I met, but rather I hoped to learn to become empathetic. In other words, I didn’t want to pity people, but rather try to understand them and how they live.
There was plenty of confronting things to see, many of which were simply examples of the different ways people in India live. The traffic was crazy, but they seemed to manage all the same. The roads were shared with cows, who never seemed phased by the constant beeping. There were also dogs everywhere. Something that hit me in particular was seeing the football fields which the children played on every day… I’ll bite my tongue if I ever catch myself complaining about pitch conditions in Australia!
At the same time, we saw and learned things that were not simply cultural, but were insights into the injustice and poverty that many people face in India. Confronting things that were genuinely not ok. These are the issues that The Freedom Project addresses through their projects. We had the immense privilege of witnessing how the local team were creating change and bringing hope and freedom to those who needed it.
Niall and I were able to be involved in the football programs that The Freedom Project runs in local slum communities. I love football. There’s something powerful about it in its ability to bring people together from completely different backgrounds and walks of life. Sport and games can do that. And as SBS puts it, football is ‘the world game’!
But it’s so much more than just a game…
The week-to-week football program reaches hundreds of local kids each year. The kids attend a before-school session and an after-school session daily. The Freedom Project coaches are so committed and tirelessly get up early day after day to teach these kids in their various slum communities. I hesitate to call them simply ‘coaches’ because they are so much more than that. Not only are they top quality footballers (as both players and trainers), but they also act as leaders, mentors and role models for the boys that they coach and the wider communities they serve in.
I was so impressed by the quality of the football coaching. The boys learn and practice skills, enjoy playing football games, and build new relationships as they become part of the footballing community. There’s also a strong focus on mentoring the boys as part of the football program. The vision of The Freedom Project is to equip these young boys to make good life choices. The boys learn to look up to their coaches, who really care for them, as positive role models in their lives. For many of these boys, having a present and caring older male is rare and is a very powerful tool for change. It’s building up the next generation of young men to create positive change in their communities. A generation who respect women, appreciate the importance of family, friends and community, and don’t get distracted by the allure of shallow temptations such as drugs, alcohol and mixing with the wrong crowd.
What does the mentoring look like? Naturally, meeting up with children twice a day gives the coaches the opportunity to get to know them well, ask them about their struggles, and invest time in caring for them. The leaders use literally every opportunity to teach discipline, teamwork, and thankfulness. Their influence is powerful. It is not about band-aiding a problem but working within the communities and empowering these young boys to step up and step out.
When we were visiting, we were not only able to run some football training sessions, but we were also able to talk to the boys and encourage them. We taught them about team work and what good leadership looks like. Although I’m sure the coaches appreciated our input, we were still not the experts and were not the ones to make the real difference. A big lesson we learned was just seeing The Freedom Project staff coaches doing their thing and seeing their amazing integrity, ability and commitment as they run these programs weekly. It was also a great lesson for me in humility and learning that it’s not about me coming and contributing, but about seeing the change that is already being made in these communities because of the programs the boys are a part of.
Just this one part of our trip to India and the work of The Freedom Project was enough to see the amazing impact of what they do. The trip was amazing and we were so thankful for having had the opportunity to go and be a part of it. But the real value of the trip wasn’t in what we were able to contribute, but seeing the impact of the work they’re already doing. I’m often hesitant to commit to supporting causes and donating money - I mean, is it really making a difference? But since meeting The Freedom Project team in India and catching a glimpse of what they’re doing… there is no hesitation in my mind.
This blog was written by Rhys Williams, one of the participants of our October 2017 Freedom Flyer trip to India. Rhys is an engineer, currently training to be a teacher. He loves soccer and is passionate about mentoring young people.