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By: Footys4All •  4 years ago •  

African world leader, Nelson Mandela, spoke these words at the Laureus Sports Awards in the year 2000: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”

Peace is the greatest weapon mankind has to resolve even the most intractable difficulties. But to be an effective agent for peace, you cannot seek only to change the community and the world. You must attempt the much more difficult task of changing yourself before you seek to change others. Those who have the courage to change themselves know that in all communities, without exception, there are good men and woman who want to serve.

The not-for- profit Footys4All children’s sporting foundation used Mandela’s words as inspiration to change the world for the better, enriching the lives of children in need through hope, happiness and a sporting opportunity via the gift of a new ball. Four years later, with over 11,000 new balls distributed around Australia and across the world through 1000’s of sponsors, volunteers and supporters, the world has changed for all the recipients.

After 20 years as a community junior sporting coach of cricket, basketball and AFL, I see it as a coaches’ responsibility to be an effective agent of peace and unification using the vehicle of sport just as Mandela did in unifying his country together at the 1995 Rugby Union World Cup after the oppression of apartheid.

I see our players as citizens of the world first and athletes second. It is one of our most important coaching responsibilities to have our players leave our care at the end of the season as better people rather than simply better athletes.

The Footys4All Foundation takes this concept a step further by involving like-minded people who value the power of sport to reach those children in need and provide them with the same hope and sporting opportunities we have been lucky enough to have. Nelson Mandela stated that, “Sports speak to youth in a language that they understand.” Therefore, it doesn’t matter what language you speak, the colour of your skin, your economic standing, the location of your community, or even your religion, a sporting game with a ball can be played in all parts of the world and will result in cultural barriers being broken down. For example, sport was the only thing that briefly halted World War I when that famous game of soccer was played on the Western Front by opposing troops during the Christmas Truce of 1914. Sport clearly has a unique power of unification all of its own.

In 2014, the Footys4All Foundation visited Redfern in Sydney, NSW. In conjunction with Sydney City Council, it delivered a Molten basketball to a group of 8-10 youths who were just hanging around the local basketball court, looking for something to do. This lack of positive activity often leads to youths following a negative pathway of action. When we arrived and gave a no-strings- attached gift of the basketball, suddenly within seconds this group of Aboriginal, Greek, Sudanese, Asian, Italian and Anglo- Saxon youths from both sexes were engaged in a positive, healthy activity. They had to communicate, work together, be active in mind and body, show agility, be respectful and, most importantly, laugh and have fun together all through the power of sport and a ball.

But it’s not just an Australian phenomenon. In Far North India, the barriers of prejudice and fear were once again broken down through the mere introduction of a tennis ball given to some special needs children. Footys4All Ambassador, board member and Melbourne University Nossal Institute of Global World Health member, Dr Nathan Grills, interacted by rolling, catching and throwing tennis balls with a small group of very young, ostracised, Indian special needs children who were seen as cursed and ‘devil spawn’ by their peers. Again, within minutes, the other children of the village were engaged in positive play with the tennis balls with the special needs children for the first time in their lives. By the time Dr Grills left the village, only a few hours later, all the children had become friends and were equal in their humanity – all through the power of a 50 cent tennis ball.

We have seen the same in Fiji, where within hours of Cyclone Winston destroying their homes, taking away their electricity, decimating their little food storages and crops and water supplies, the local youth were out in the elements, engaged in rugby to forget their problems. They could laugh and find an untroubled moment thanks to their rugby ball. Life would continue, despite the devastation. The physical constructs of their lives may have been destroyed by the cyclone, but their spirit, thanks to sport, was unbroken.

The people of Elcho Island in the Northern Territory have a more unusual approach to sport through circumstance. They consume 600 litres of soft drink a day, leaving plenty of plastic bottles to use in their main game of choice – football. The Foundation agreed that this was an unacceptable situation for the children of Elcho Island and, thanks to a Ross Faulkner and TNT sponsorship of 1,500 footys, we were able to spend four days in the second most remote Aboriginal community in Australia, providing each child at Shepherdson’s College school with a football gift. We were able to leave the Island having made a positive change to their lives, seeing every child engaged in sporting activities. When you see a child kicking a new football rather than an old soft drink bottle, it really restores your hope in humanity and a future of unity.

We have seen how the receipt of a ball by a child in a special needs school in Broadmeadows enabled him to speak when before he was mute. He simply said: “Thank you.” It was a thank you for caring, for giving hope, for making dreams come true. This is the change that sport can effect if you take the time to connect with children, especially with those in need. It creates a fork in the road – an opportunity for change.

The importance of these football gifts to the recipients could not be more effectively – and dramatically – shown than when, at a Tiwi Island (NT) Footys4All distribution, a young aboriginal child risked his life by jumping into the crocodile-infested waters to retrieve his brand new Ross Faulkner Green Aid Football. That is how much his new football and the opportunity to play sport meant to him! AFL Aboriginal Essendon legend, Michael Long and 4-time World Aboriginal Boxing Champion, Robbie Peden were on hand to help with the event and were amazed and inspired.

The Footys4All impact and approach evolves and changes with each new day. Our latest ‘Closing the Gap’ initiative is for 30 U15 female AFL footballers and their coaches from St Mary’s FC in Greensborough, Melbourne to travel to Australia’s largest aboriginal community in Yarrabah, Cairns. Here they will engage with their female Pyramid Power FC counterparts in relation to all things, football, health, education and fun. On their return to Melbourne, the St Mary FC footballers are committed to raising money to bring their new friends from Yarrabah down to Melbourne to reciprocate their hospitality and build further community and connection.

As I sat and watched at that basketball court in Redfern, Sydney, chatting with the local youth in an unobtrusive way, I spoke to them about how great it was to see so many cultures engaged in a positive, cohesive sporting activity. Laddia, a young aboriginal lady in jeans, looked at me with a big smile and said, “We are not many different cultures. We are one culture!”. She was right. The issue we often talk of, being individually aboriginal, refugee, Christian, African, Sudanese, Catholic, Greek, Muslim, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, Fijian, Indian, and more, is important as is our heritage, but it is never to be forgotten that we can speak as one, united, peacefully, through sport.

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