Looks of bemusement were displayed across the faces of the 7-9 year old Haitian Jacmel United Futball Club (JUFC) players when my 15 year old daughter handed out their first toothbrushes and proceeded to demonstrate usage. Giggles erupted when she explained tongue brushing and heads shook solemnly during her admonitions to use clean water and never share.
In addition to support services, Goals Beyond the Net gives JUFC team members a feeling of control, basic etiquette (e.g., introducing yourself to a visitor, shaking hands, looking someone in the eye) and most importantly a sense of pride. A brainchild of Princeton soccer senior, and previous Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation Intern Diane Leggette-Metcalf, the program focuses on building soccer clubs to actively engage children in extreme poverty. As members of JUFC, these children receive health care, education, character development, economic empowerment, and English fluency classes.
To qualify for the services, a child must demonstrate a willingness to attend practice regularly, learn English and apply themselves in school. For children who are at their appropriate grade level and demonstrate language skills, $400 sponsored scholarships give them access to one of the top independent schools in the country. Recent test scores of JUFC students placed them at the top of national test scores. For the many children who may be significantly behind academically, other support systems are provided.
The sense of community is driven by Haitian coaches who themselves come from extreme home conditions yet keep a professional atmosphere on the soccer field. The coaches teach 13 attributes that are essential for an individual to possess strong moral character. Woven through these attributes are concepts of accountability and fortitude.
The children grow up in one room homes with as many as 8 or more family members, no electricity and water which may be miles away from the home and collected daily in buckets. Players are fortunate if they eat a few meals a week. Despite extensive evidence of malnutrition, these children may walk for miles to be on time for team practice. In broken flip flops or an old pair of used cleats given to them by Princeton and Lafayette players who have volunteered time, the players enthusiastically engage on the field. They may wear different socks on each foot, have holes in their shorts but the children sport big smiles with eyes shining with newly acquired confidence.
Evidence of the outpouring of American generosity after the earthquake is seen through the variety of school t-shirts and sports clubs from across the 50 states which are cleaned and pressed by daily by players’ mothers and grandmothers.
The Together Counts™ concepts of the importance family meals and engaging in physical activity as a family takes a very different twist in Haiti; however, what Goals Beyond the Net demonstrate is the key elements of community and sport whether related to overnutrition or undernutrition can change the world and give children the confidence to take control of their lives.
Lisa Gable is the President of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation which funds the Together Counts program. Lisa recently volunteered with Goals Beyond the Net in Haiti.