Playing it Forward in India

Over the Thanksgiving recess, three South Portland High School students travelled to India with us to bring the game of soccer to 40 girls who live in the slum of Janata Vasant in Pune, India.  Over several days of morning and evening sessions, senior Amber McKenzie and freshmen Brooklynn Ortiz and Maggie Cole brought the game of soccer to girls whose lives are challenged by poverty, social constraints, gender based violence and a lack of access to many of the most basics elements of childhood such as play and sport.  

Isabella Ucci, a junior at Maine College of Art, Finn Ducker, the assistant soccer coach at the University of New England, Jill Greenlaw, a Maine based photographer and Jenny Mills, Limitless Child’s Executive Director rounded out our team. The team’s commitment was not only evident during their 9-days in India, but also when they each raised $2,000 to cover their travel costs. 

Play Is Not Optional, It’s Fundamental

Utilizing sports and play to improve the quality of life for children in vulnerable communities is part of Limitless Child’s core mission.  Sports and recreation are essential to children’s health and well-being by promoting the development of creativity, imagination, self-confidence and emotional strength. These are not just the beliefs of LCI. The world community agrees and has declared the right to play as a basic human right for all children (Article 31 of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child).

In India, Limitless Child partners with ASHA (Action for Self-Reliance, Hope and Awareness), a highly respected organization based in Pune.  For over 30 years ASHA has provided crisis intervention, counseling and empowerment to abused women and girls.   With an ever-increasing number of domestic violence, dowry deaths, child brides and other forms of violence, ASHA’s caring social workers are greatly needed by the communities they serve.   Much of their work focuses on prevention and empowerment of girls from a young age.  Limitless Child’s Play it Forward Peer Soccer Program is a natural complement to this work.

The goal of this trip was to teach soccer to young girls.  But soccer was not the end game.  It was just the opening move.  Most importantly these 42 young girls were empowered.  They were filled with laughter, energy and hope.    They met kids and adults from Pune who served as examples of what their life could be.  And with the girls from South Portland they connected on a personal level - in a way that no one could have imagined. 

40 Became 44

Each day Amber, Brooklynn, Maggie and Isabella worked with a group of the same 10 girls.   They ranged in age from 9 to 17.  They worked together in morning and afternoon soccer sessions. They shared snacks and meals together.  They laughed, sang songs and made hand-crafted gifts for each other.  They honored each other at the banquet on the last night.  And when it was time to head home, they shared their tears together. 

Take The Bacon

The soccer clinic consisted of morning and afternoon sessions where Finn and the Limitless Peer Coaches ran the girls through basic drills and scrimmages with a few games thrown into the mix (Take The Bacon was the definitive favorite).  What started out as shyness on all sides quickly transformed into “good job” and “great try”.  Miscommunications were met with laughter, patience and the surprising ability of the young girls to translate for the Americans.  By day 2 the shyness had been replaced by excitement and a hunger to communicate.

The peer coaches each connected in their own unique way, which was a joy to watch as the girls truly bonded.  While our time together was brief, the relationships that developed were profound and the desire to stay connected genuine and completely mutual. 

A banquet held on night #2 of the program brought everyone together at a local restaurant.  The Limitless team had prepared for the night by purchasing traditional Indian outfits, which were a huge hit with the girls!  Perhaps my favorite memory from the trip was the moment we saw all 40 of the girls arrive at the restaurant.  They were absolutely glowing with excitement and each had dressed up in their very best outfit!  Compliments, conversation and laughter flowed as we all enjoyed a traditional Thali meal.  The peer coaches eagerly showed photos of home and family to their new friends and before leaving for the night each Peer Coach was presented with a keepsake box, beautifully hand-painted in traditional Marathi style by the girls.

Farewell, For Now

Our last day was punctuated by certificates of achievement and cards hand-made by the peer coaches for each participant.  There were then a million hugs and declarations of friendship and as we watched the girls drive away, unexpected tears brought on by the depth of emotion. 

Our four Peer Coaches from South Portland have been profoundly impacted.  So much so that they are already planning their fundraising so they can go back and be with the girls from Pune again.  And the girls in Pune found that they can indeed have a thriving childhood.  They are all but demanding that Limitless Child and ASHA give them the opportunity to play soccer with the local coaches and kids every week.  So needless to say, that is just what we are doing.

We will be heading back to Pune within the next year with a new group of Peer Coaches and a team of new and excited young women as we continue to Play it Forward

In addition to the soccer clinic our Peer Coached traveled to the old city of Agra and visited the Taj Mahal, an absolute wonder of the world! We also explored the Aga Khan Palace in Pune where Ghandi was imprisoned with his wife and chief secretary during India’s fight for Independence from British rule.  Traveling on the back of a moped and walking through open-air markets provided a glimpse into the day to day life in the Janata Vasant slum community. The coaches loved our visits to 2 orphanages, especially SOS children’s village in Delhi where we spent hours playing Duck-Duck-Goose, coloring and having a hilarious dance party with the children.  These visits also provided an opportunity to learn about the role of orphanages and societal issues which favor the birth of a son.  An afternoon spent with the ASHA staff provided an in-depth discussion about issues relating to domestic violence and how women and children are impacted as well as the programs which ASHA has developed in response.  We accomplished what we set out to do, empower and connect the girls through soccer. The fact that we did so, immersed in a culture so vastly different from our own, made this a truly life changing learning experience for everyone involved.