“When can we do it again?” You know you’ve just been involved in an exciting project when one of the participants asks this twenty minutes after it has finished. And there’s no doubt that the week 6 of Wat Opot’s boys spent training in football, leadership and social responsibility was exciting, although its impact went much deeper than that.
Collaboration between NGOs in Cambodia is, unfortunately, still too rare, which is why we were so delighted when the outstanding education and sports NGO ISF, based in Phnom Penh, asked us to take part in their “sport for social impact” course. Already masters in collaboration, thanks to their cross-Cambodian football leagues, ISF had joined up with the internationally renowned team from Coaches Across Continents to offer the course.
Every day for a week the Wat Opot Six travelled to ISF’s beautiful football pitches (also home to one of the best public toilets in Cambodia!) and worked with budding young footballers and coaches from ISF. Through a series of brilliantly designed games and activities, they improved their football skills, learnt how to be young leaders and coaches, became friends with people from very different backgrounds and learnt how to tackle social problems in Cambodia.
This was an especially big deal for our kids. Although there has always been a lot of football played at Wat Opot, and days usually ended with an impromptu sunset match, this was generally played shoeless and on a small patch of gravel and dirt. They had never truly played as a team, usually improvising with whoever happened to be around.
Over the last year, that changed. ISF first invited our boys to form their first ever full football team and play a friendly (they lost by a massive margin, but that didn’t dampen the team’s enthusiasm). A supporter in England generously supported this initiative by buying the kids their first football boots, and ISF donated kits and footballs. Then Wat Opot invested in a basic new football pitch of our own, in order to give the boys the best opportunity to hone their skills, gain in confidence and enjoy their childhood. It has since come into regular use by youngsters from around the area, deepening our connection to the communities around us.
This proof that they are a valued part of the wider world, firstly in our communities and now all the way to Phnom Penh, is more valuable than you might guess. In the earliest days of Wat Opot, the adults and children who lived with us were often shunned even by neighbours as a result of their HIV status. While this has improved, its still true that many of our kids can feel isolated and fearful when they think of the wider world. For the two HIV positive players who took part in this course, nothing could have been more powerful in illustrating that there are people out there ready to accept and appreciate them for who they are and the talents they have.
The course itself was brilliant. The boys all confessed to feeling nervous about being plunged into a big gang of unknown kids from the big city, but the Coaches Across Continents team (Mark, Emily and Ryan) quickly broke the ice with a range of fun football games that cleverly forced the kids to introduce themselves and their passions to each other. The CAC team’s combination of warmth, charisma and expertise was crucial to the whole week’s success. Using football as the bait, all the participants were subtly introduced to key lessons about teamwork, communication and leadership.
By day two, the many different groups who had naturally clung together – our own kids, but also classmates from ISF, and our fellow guests from Green Umbrella – began to break up and join in with others, forging valuable new connections. By day four, Mark, Emily and Ryan were able to take a back seat and let the young ISF coaches lead events, which they did with a confidence, humour and expertise that made them a huge success.
The games and activities themselves are difficult to explain in words, but remarkably effective. One involved spinning players repeatedly around and then making them dribble footballs through an obstacle course. The resulting dizziness made it impossible for them to complete an activity they would normally find easy – which turned out to be an ingenious illustration of the way in which alcohol impedes driving, in a country where too many young people die while driving motorbikes intoxicated.
Other games taught players how they can support the visually impaired, why it’s crucial to speak up for your rights, how to avoid social problems like poor diet and drugs, and how girls can achieve just as much as boys, on the football pitch and off. Just as important were the discussions afterwards, when all the players were asked to reflect on what they had learnt and how they could put it into practice in their day to day lives. We were very proud when our kids took an active part in a discussion around HIV: rather than fearing everyone might stigmatise them, they used their greater knowledge of the virus and safe sex to educate the others – with only a little teenage giggling. The benefits this must have had on our kids’ self confidence was huge.
The week culminated in one of the most exciting events we’ve held at Wat Opot in a long time. The CAC team, along with two of ISF’s best coaches, travelled all the way out to Wat Opot to host two hours of football activities for all of our kids and around 40 youngsters from the neighbouring villages. Our own boys played a key role in organizing the activities, enabling them to practice the teamwork and leadership they had learnt over the week.
Judging by the constant laughter, shouting and cheering from the young kids, the afternoon was a huge success, a series of teamwork and games that involved everyone. Local girls who insisted at the start that they wouldn’t play football (football still being seen by too many in Cambodia as a “boys only” thing) were later seen dribbling balls across the pitch. ISF and CAC had done an amazing thing, in reaching these kids in a remote rural spot in Cambodia, and encouraging them to work together, have fun and think a little about their future role in solving social problems.
The rain held back and the sky provided a studding backdrop for some photos!
The single most powerful proof of the whole collaboration’s success came just two days later. One of the Wat Opot Six attended our new peer support group for young people living with HIV in Takeo. In previous events he had been quiet and reluctant to participate. This time he opened up, and talked movingly and confidently about the struggles of his past, and the challenges and fears he still faces every day. It was impossible not to think that this opening up was due to the confidence he had gained during the course, the importance it had placed on communication, and his new found trust that talking about his fears would be met with support by the strangers around him, not by ridicule. It was visibly a very important moment for him, one in which he learnt he was not alone, and it was made possible by the course.
Like all the best collaborations, we have no intentions of letting this one fade away. We are now trying to organize a continued and sustained involvement with ISF’s football programmes, allowing even more Wat Opot children to benefit. We are also looking for ways to encourage each of the Wat Opot Six to put their new skills into action as they plan their future lives and collaboration, and are going to work to ensure more girls take part in the future. We cannot thank ISF or Coaches Across Continents enough. It would be impossible to name everyone whose time, passion and openness of spirit made it all possible. They are all football champions in our eyes, and made the boys feel like champions too.
Written by Jaime Gill