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Gooooaaal! Scoring strong communities through sports

June 23, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Nathan Plowman (front row, middle) poses with members of our LEAP program in Kenya. LEAP, which stands for Local Empowerment for Peace, include sports programs made up of mixed tribe members, who take part in conflict management and peace dialogue processes. Photo: Mercy Corps

Every four years, the world comes down with a severe case of World Cup fever. Thousands of frenzied fans pack themselves into stadiums, wear outrageous costumes, paint their faces and wave banners. Hundreds of thousands of people gather in front of a TV to root fervently for their team.

Sport brings people together. That's why Mercy Corps uses sports in many of its programs to promote tolerance, reinforce social messages and help traumatized youth.

The agency's programs vary from country to country, says Nathan Plowman. As Mercy Corps’ Sport for Change advisor, it's Plowman's job to figure out how sport can be incorporated into the design of programs to help achieve its goals, like building peace or fostering inclusion.

In Kenya, we put members of different tribes on the same soccer or volleyball team to help ease tensions resulting from post-election violence in 2007. And part of our program in Colombia to reduce violence against women includes getting more than 4,000 kids to play soccer together.

Plowman says that program is a good example of how "sport provides a learning moment" for kids, who learn values like respect, fairness, honesty and self-control, break down gender-based stereotypes and improve their tolerance of others.

But do these programs provide lasting results? The short answer is yes.

In some parts of Liberia, myths about HIV/AIDS transmission are commonplace. We taught youth how to prevent HIV/AIDS transmission in five villages, but used sport to reinforce the message in only three of them. When Mercy Corps surveyed participants three years later, those who participated in the soccer program remembered what they learned at higher rates than the others.

Plowman also points out that Mercy Corps has successfully used sports to help kids recover emotionally after disasters. After the earthquake in Sichuan, China, we trained dozens of teachers, parents and caregivers how to help over 30,000 kids cope with the trauma they experienced as a result. Kids were given a workbook full of easy-to-understand earthquake information to help dispel lingering fears and misconceptions. Games were a part of the program, too.

According to Plowman, these sport-related activities provided a healthy outlet for stress relief, helped kids regain some of their self-esteem and made them feel safe again. Many teachers reported that children were happier and less afraid.

Today we’re introducing this same program to youth in Haiti affected by the January earthquake. We’ll train over 50 coaches and youth workers in Port-au-Prince on using sport and games to restore the self-confidence of more than 1,500 earthquake-affected kids.

As Plowman points out, programs like these support larger goals: In Haiti, the hope is that these kids won't be plagued by psychological problems later in life, and can become the leaders who will shape Haiti’s future. Watching the World Cup is a welcome distraction. But giving them a chance to play their own games is a victory for their futures.