Soccer, OA Projects helping build social capital

By Marc Weber, The Province April 6, 2011

Five years ago, a passage by general Romeo Dallaire inspired five University of Victoria students to pay their own way to Ecuador in order to use soccer for social good

It was a learning experience as much as anything -a show of youthful enthusiasm -but it has grown into a non-profit with momentum.

“Dallaire described kids in Rwanda who were able to temporarily escape the horror around them by playing soccer with a clump of banana leaves,” says Gavin Hollett, the founder and executive director of OA Projects, which seeks to use soccer to build strong communities for war-affected youth.

“With that in mind, and with our shared interest in soccer, we just wanted to get involved. It was a really organic idea and now it’s evolved to something much more grounded and realistic.”

OA Projects -Opportunitas Aequa is Latin for equal opportunity -is now completely focused in Northern Uganda, where they’ve partnered with the Youth Coalition for Peace on various projects.

Among them: organizing leagues, camps and tournaments for waraffected children; rebuilding fields; and training local youth leaders on peace-building and soccer coaching, so they can, in turn, run programs.

Topics will range from conflict management and domestic violence to gender equity, leadership and HIV/AIDS awareness.

They’ve started in Gulu, the main community in Northern Uganda, but plan to expand to four more communities and reach 15,000 children in the next two years.

“It’s about building social capital, rebuilding some of the social and cultural frameworks that were snapped by conflicts,” said Hollett, a 28-year-old Victoria native who did a double major in cultural studies and sciences.

“Soccer is the platform -it’s fun, it’s engaging and it gets people talking about things they wouldn’t otherwise talk about.

“Our big focus is trying to be a stable, long-term partner for the grassroots peace-building network in Northern Uganda.”

To that end, OA has begun to partner with Lower Mainland soccer clubs, and the Vancouver Whitecaps, to raise funds.

In 2010, the North Vancouver Football Club used games on the last weekend in September to raise more than $5,000 -players and coaches donated at least $2 each.

Hollett, a former provincial team player who had a trial with Manchester City when he was 16, said he hopes to raise $20,000 from “Play Soccer So They Can” games this year. He’s hoping to get at least three more clubs on board.

“North Vancouver had a huge positive response from their membership and it will be an annual thing for them,” he said. “Essentially, it’s about a community effort to bring youth clubs together here and help youth there. That’s what we really want to try and build.”

- Anyone interested in OA Projects can go to oaprojects.org or follow them on Facebook (OAProjects). For more information on the Play Soccer So They Can community, head to playsotheycan.com.

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