Wat Opot, a community for children affected by or living with HIV, recently joined our Football Programme. Jaime Gill, a longtime ISF supporter and now a volunteer at Wat Opot, describes the collaboration, which started with a week-long course in football, teamwork and social responsibility.
“When can we do it again?” That was what Kosal,* 16, wanted to know just 20 minutes after completing the week-long course organised by ISF with Coaches Across Continents (CAC). Obviously he’d enjoyed himself, but the impact went further than that. Kosal was one of six participants from Wat Opot. We are always trying to find ways to connect with the wider world, so we were delighted when ISF invited us to be part of this cross-Cambodian project.
Every day, the Wat Opot Six travelled to ISF’s football pitches. Through a series of games and activities, the participants improved their football skills, learned how to be young leaders, were encouraged to tackle social problems and became friends with children from very different backgrounds.
This was an especially big deal for these boys. In the earliest days of Wat Opot, the children in the community were often shunned by their families and neighbours because of their HIV status. While this has improved, the children can still feel isolated and fearful when they think of the wider world. For the two players living with HIV who took part in the course, nothing could have been more powerful in illustrating that there are people out there who will accept and appreciate them.
Coaches Across Continents
The course itself was brilliantly designed. The boys all confessed to feeling nervous, but the CAC team quickly broke the ice with a range of fun football activities. Using football as bait, the participants were subtly introduced to key lessons about teamwork, communication and leadership. By day four, CAC was able to take a back seat and let the young ISF coaches lead the course, which they did with confidence, humour and expertise.
The games and activities themselves are difficult to describe in words but were remarkably effective at showing players how they can support disabled people, 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 as much as boys, on the football pitch and off.
Just as important were the discussions afterwards, when players were asked to reflect on what they had learned. We were very proud when our kids took an active part in a discussion around HIV. Rather than fearing stigmatisation, they used their knowledge of the virus and safe sex to educate the others – with only a little teenage giggling.
The week culminated in one of the most exciting events in Wat Opot history. The CAC team, along with a group of ISF’s best coaches and girl footballers, travelled to Takeo to host football activities for Wat Opot and 40 youngsters from the neighbouring villages. Our own boys played a key role in organising the activities, enabling them to practise the teamwork and leadership they had learned over the week.
As proven by the laughter, shouting and cheering, the afternoon was a huge success. Local girls who insisted at the start that they wouldn’t play football 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 role in solving social problems.
Living with HIV
One of the Wat Opot Six attended our peer support group for young people living with HIV. In previous sessions, 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. He later admitted this transformation was due to the confidence he had gained during the course.
We have no intention of letting this collaboration fade and are in discussions about continued involvement with ISF’s Football Programme. But even before we take these next steps, we have seen a huge change in the Wat Opot Six and cannot thank CAC and ISF enough. So, when can we do it again?
*Names of children under 18 years old have been changed.