Connecting through kicks
All it takes is a ball and a few willing pairs of feet.
This is the beauty of soccer, and a large part of the inspiration behind Canadian grassroots organization Opportunitas Aequa.
Latin for “equal opportunity,” OA is a non-profit group based out of Victoria and Vancouver focused on improving the lives of children in war-affected countries through the simplicity of soccer.
It started when a group of five friends in their fourth year at the University of Victoria came together looking for a way to pool their ideas and energy.
“We were feeling a bit helpless and feeling a bit like ‘Well what can we do?’ ” explained Gavin Hollett, one of OA’s original founders.
With all the issues surrounding them, from global warming to war, Hollett said all five guys wanted to do something, but couldn’t find an issue they connected with.
That was until reading a passage from “Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda,” a book written by Canadian General Romeo Dallaire who served with the UN in Rwanda during the genocide that took place 15 years ago.
Dallaire described a scene where among total chaos and horror, he heard kids laughing and found that they were playing soccer with a ball of rolled up banana leaves.
To visit OA’s website click here
“For me and for the rest of the group it was very powerful because we had all grown up playing sports, specifically soccer, and that had such a big, positive impact on us as individuals so we immediately connected with that image,” said Hollett.
“Its just so simple. It’s global, it’s universal, it’s just so tangible. Everyone gets it, everyone understands it, it’s like a language,” he added. “You put a soccer ball down and everyone in the world is going to know what that means.”
So with the decision to replicate that moment of joy from Dallaire’s book, OA was officially off the ground in June of 2006.
Despite a lack of familiarity with non-profits, the friends dove head first into their first project.
“The start was certainly not easy,” said co-founder Andrew Brownlee of the group’s effort to get things started.
“We put a lot of time into coming up with different methods of fundraising and spreading the word. We had a lot of energy but little experience with which to focus it. We did everything from bottle drives to fundraising concerts.”
After eight months of collecting soccer equipment and money, they headed to the communities of Chimborazo and Guayaquil in rural Ecuador for two months.
While there, they distributed over 1,350 soccer balls and 850 pairs of cleats and runners along with constructing a field, which has since been put to use by 45 communities, according to Hollett.
For their second project, OA focused their attention on Rwanda— the country whose story initially inspired the organization.
Part one of Project Rwanda took place in July 2008, with a five member team not only distributing over 100 soccer balls but teaching soccer camps as well, which is an aspect of the organization’s goal of creating sustainability within the community in terms of soccer, explained Hollett.
“There is a potential to actually do harm when you’re doing these types of projects and that harm comes from the belief that something is better than nothing,” he said. “These people don’t have nothing, they have their own lives.”
With that in mind, OA also refurbished a field in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, using drought resistant grass and planting trees around the field’s perimeter to provide shade and prevent soil erosion.
Part two of Project Rwanda will take place this July along with the beginning of another project in Gulu, Uganda in April.
In an effort to raise funds, OA has begun a T-shirt campaign called “1 for 1” in which every shirt that’s purchased goes directly towards a soccer ball for an at-risk or war-affected child in Africa.
Along with the T-shirt campaign, Hollett said people can contribute to OA through joining their community of supporters through their Facebook page and YouTube videos.
“Whether it be selling our first T-shirt, all the way to working long hours to complete the construction of a field. Seeing our aspirations and dreams come to fruition makes all the time worthwhile to me,” said Brownlee.
“I wouldn’t change the last two years and a bit for anything. And the learning experiences and the process that we have gone through has been life changing. The positives that we have seen on the ground of our collective efforts is worth more than any pay cheque could compensate for,” said Hollett.
“Soccer is amazing, it really is.”