How grassroots sports improves lives around the world

October 28, 2011

This is part of The Globe and Mail's in-depth look at the evolution of philanthropy. Read more from the series here.

Bob Munro made a deal with the kids kicking a makeshift ball of plastic bags tied together with string.

Clean up the field in the slums of Nairobi, and he would give them a proper soccer ball. Get rid of the garbage, and he would volunteer to coach and referee the young players.

And so began the Mathare Youth Sports Association, named for a violent slum inside Nairobi and founded by the transplanted businessman who was inspired by his experience as a youth playing hockey in St. Catharines, Ont. A former adviser to Canadian diplomat Maurice Strong at the Stockholm conference on the environment in the mid-1970s, and thereafter the United Nations Habitat conference on human settlement, Munro made many contacts in Kenya and settled there in 1985, only to be overwhelmed by the stench and despair of the slum.

"Initially, it was as a payback and thank you to Joe Cheevers [father of goalie great Gerry]and the others who organized our hockey leagues when I was a boy," Munro, 69, said in a telephone call from Kenya this week. "Subsequently, my motivation in starting soccer leagues in Mathare was linked to cleaning up the slums, and to AIDS prevention."

There are seven billion people in the world and nearly 1.5 billion live on little more than $1 per day. Half of Africans live in extreme poverty. Organizations, including the MYSA and the Toronto-based Right to Play, are united in a movement called Sport for Development and Peace, using grassroots sport "to speak to youth in a language they understand," says Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

The motherhood cachet of sport is being used to foster human rights around the world. Sports Illustrated recently praised the Sport for Development and Peace movement – which brought together commissioners from pro sports leagues for a conference at Yankee Stadium – as an effective means of "spreading health messages, pacifying communities in conflict, preparing refugees for resettlement and providing what experts consider the simplest means of promoting development: improved status for women."

Right to Play, headed by Norwegian speed skating icon Johann Olov Koss, is involved with children in 20 countries with the volunteer assistance of athletes such as Clara Hughes, the Olympic medalist is speed skating and cycling. Munro, serving as chairman of the MYSA and vice-chairman of the country's premier soccer league, has become one of Canada's most successful leaders in sports philanthropy. The MYSA, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary on Dec. 3, has grown into councils that specialize in sport and in clean-up, sanitation and AIDS education. All the representatives are under 21, and half are girls, Munro says. Locals are becoming the agents of change.

"The really dramatic changes are not in the slums being cleaner because the garbage problem is so enormous," Munro said. "The major changes are within the youth themselves, and what they think and what they do with their lives, on the field and off the field."

He did not understand immediately "how determined they were and how proud they were; and then I became fascinated and amazed at what work they were doing. ... They started up programs, run by members of the association. They were to be the decision makers, I was the adviser and chair of the board of trustees."

He recalled the MYSA officials deciding to build a scaled-down field and nets to take the game of soccer down to 12-year-old children. A youngster reminded them: "You have to drill a hole every foot in the goal posts ... otherwise, people will steal them for water pipes."

Koss, the gold-medal speed skater from Norway, is working the same street. Kick a soccer ball onto a dirt field, float a Frisbee in the air, and you start reviving those lost feelings of hope and respect in the thousands of children who have spent their formative years in dispiriting refugee camps, Koss says. They learn fun, a sense of order and rules in a world that has been circumscribed by chaos, fear, danger and fences.

The tangential nature of sport makes it valuable as a teaching tool, says Robert Witchel, Canada's national director for Right to Play.

"In a community suffering the effects of war, poverty or disease, often the ability to play is lost. [But].. Once you throw a ball onto the ground. it doesn't seem to matter who's there. One of our athlete ambassadors who sits on our board – Silken Laumann – said it best: for kids, to play is to learn.

"When you participate in sports, kids develop roles. They learn to socialize; they learn things they don't learn in a classroom ... success, failure and how to deal with them; teamwork, leadership other very important related skills come out of sport ... you learn discipline and respect for your teammates and others."

This week Koss, who is in Lebanon, dispatched a pair of gold-medal winning Canadians to Mali in Africa to oversee RTP's progress – Hughes and kayaker Adam van Koeverden. The kids had no connection with them as sports figures, but knew winners of Olympic gold represented hope and success. It's especially important in countries where girls have been denied rights and education because of their gender.

Fundamentalism has restrained women from education and leadership in certain parts of the developing world.

"Did girls report increased self-esteem and confidence after participating in our programs and did women's participation in sport and play grow in communities in which we operate? If yes, that's a win for Right To Play," Koss messaged from Lebanon.

"After participating in our programs, did kids learn leadership skills; were youth in conflict-stressed countries better able to manage their anger and resolve conflicts without resorting to violence; did they have a better understanding of HIV and AIDS and a knowledge of how to protect themselves? If yes, that's a win for Right To Play...

"In Manshera, Pakistan ... I had the tremendous pleasure of witnessing young girls promoting gender equality and development to their peers, families and entire communities, thus leveraging the strong leadership skills that they gained in our sport and play programs.

"I genuinely believe that those empowered young girls will be the ones who drive their communities towards a better future."

A makeshift ball, much like the one kids were playing with when Munro made his offer, now sits in the Olympic museum in Lausanne. Some think of it as a relic, some think of it as a symbol that much more needs to be done. Munro looks across the landscape and sees a horizon. It may seem far off ... but it used to be obscured by a mountain of garbage.

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