The game changers
It’s a common belief that education is the only means to instill morals and values in children and make them better human beings. Sports is usually perceived as recreation that helps them develop physical prowess. But a handful of Mumbaites beg to differ and use sports to wean away underprivileged kids from substance abuse and provide others, also from lower economic backgrounds, a platform to build a better life.
When I meet journalists Kunaal Majgaonkar, Shail Desai and former scribe and now marketing manager Jigna Padhiar at a popular seaside café at Juhu on a balmy Wednesday morning, they seem just like a regular bunch of friends who have met up for a hearty breakfast. But why are Majgaonkar and Desai dressed in jerseys, shorts, shoes and sweating profusely? That’s when they start telling me about their venture Project Play — their eyes lighting up as they get talking about their passion — football.
Started in October 2010, Project Play provides sporting gear — read used shoes, T-shirts, socks, etc — to deserving underprivileged kids. Desai and Majgaonkar, who work with leading dailies and cover football as a beat, got the idea one afternoon when they were sitting at Azad Maidan. “We saw some kids, who we had covered for a story earlier, wearing ill-fitting shoes and large shorts and asked ourselves what we were doing to help them. Like other people, even we tend to forget about them once our stories are published. That’s when we thought about collecting stuff from people who don’t need them and passing it on to these children,” says an animated Majgaonkar, as he takes a bite of a Spanish omelette.
Since the duo had been writing on soccer for some time, they had the necessary contacts. They started off by creating a database of deserving kids by interacting with their coaches and asking them to recommend a few names. Once that was done, they started posting regular updates on Facebook asking for support. “We wanted to start a reward programme whereby the coaches would assess the performance of their students and recommend names. We also created a database of donors and the gear that they supplied. In the first six months, we managed to help only six kids,” says Majgaonkar.
Padhiar, whose house was used to sort out the gear, says at the time, they had to throw away some stuff since it was in terrible condition. “There have been instances where people have donated just for the heck of it, without really caring for the cause. But we made it a point to discard such gear. We would mend some shoes that were in a slightly better condition,” she says.
As word spread, they started getting help from people whom they hardly knew. Dadar-based sporting institute Kenkre Academy that trains 1,000 children in different kinds of sports, donated sackfuls of jerseys, socks and shoes to Project Play. “A girl from England, with whom I would play scrabble but never interacted personally, sent a pair of new gloves for a Colaba municipal school kid. Such instances strengthened our belief in our cause,” says Majgaonkar.
Three weeks ago, they decided to up the ante and started organising football training camps at Juhu Koliwada beach for local kids. Desai, who lives at Juhu, got the idea after he saw some children playing football casually. He discussed the idea with Majgaonkar and the duo thought of approaching their friends, who are licensed coaches and train people professionally in soccer. Once they agreed to do it voluntarily, the scribes approached the children’s parents and convinced them. “They are simple people who work as maids, servants and sweepers. They were apprehensive that our camp would be a one-off thing that happens only for a few days and wraps up in a jiffy. Once we assured them that wasn’t the case and told them that we were serious about our plan, they agreed happily,” explains Desai.
The next day, the 27 year-old spoke to a child and soon within minutes he saw kids aged six to 15 thronging him and asking him about the camp.
Desai and Majgonkar put up posts on Facebook urging people to donate money for footballs. Within 48 hours, they had enough funds to buy 10 footballs. Now players who represent Ivy professional leagues have promised them that they will train the kids at the camp once their season gets over on May 10.
Over the last four months, the founders of Project Play have set up drop boxes at gymkhanas and schools urging people to donate sporting gear and support their cause. Plans are also afoot to extend the camps to other places across the city and branching out into other sports.
“We want to build a fixed module of Project Play and extend it to other cities. We have got requests from people from Delhi and Hyderabad who want to replicate our module and work with us. Also in the long run, we want these children to participate on a professional level in competitions under the aegis of Project Play teams.”
Ask the trio what the toughest part about shouldering this project is and they say, “Finding venues for kids, sorting out secondhand stuff and raising funds is quite stressful. On a personal front, after a hard day of covering events, filing stories and coming home at 2 am, it’s an ordeal to get up at 6 am and go for the camp.” “However, when we see the smiles on the children’s faces, we forget everything. It’s priceless,” adds Majgaonkar with a wide grin.
Three years ago, 20 year-old Rahul Pol, a resident of Dharavi, had no reason to live. After performing poorly in his exams, he couldn’t fulfill his parents’ dreams of becoming a doctor. Due to financial constraints, he had to start working at a young age. However, he soon fell in bad company and got addicted to drugs. Pol started collecting money from the locals to buy drugs. After his girlfriend broke up with him, he moved to his home town Kolhapur. And that’s when he realised that he had nothing to look forward to in life.
After a seven month-stay at Kolhapur, he returned to Mumbai and decided to turn over a new leaf. A second-degree black belt holder in karate, he started practising regularly. Gradually he gave up substance abuse too. Soon, he decided to start weaning away kids who are addicted to drugs, through sports. And that’s how Unity Foundation was born in June 2010.
When I meet Pol at a government colony in Sion (east), he is clad in a Unity Foundation t-shirt and track pants, interacting with slum kids and teaching them karate. Today, the shy, soft-spoken 24 year-old is a far cry from his earlier ruffian self. After a 30-minute schedule, he instructs the children to form a circle and breaks into a fun song Haathi ka bachcha that speaks about unity.
Later, as we settle down at a restaurant, he tells me that Unity Foundation started off by training 30 children in 2010. Now, while five of them are completely de-addicted, three are working and supporting their families. A triumphant smile on his face indicates that Pol is happy with his organisation’s slow but steady success.
Today, he trains 85 kids in karate and football and conducts daily camps at Sion Qilla and Dharavi. He tells me that he also plans to organise cricket camps at Wadala.
“Since I hailed from the same area, it wasn’t difficult to spread the word. A few kids brought their friends along and that’s how word spread. I have learnt from my personal experience that kids become drug addicts due to bad environment, bad company and the lack of goal,” says Pol.
In order to update the parents about their wards’ progress, he conducts a monthly meeting with them. “We conduct fitness tests and tell parents about their children’s weight and progress and also counsel them to wean them away from drugs.”
In the longer run, Pol wants to extend these camps and programmes to the outskirts of Mumbai too and the distant parts of Maharashtra. “I want to teach them English, provide them vocational training and give them job opportunities so that they become self-reliant.”
Social worker VS Venkat, who has worked closely with different NGOs, believes that community-based organisations (CBOs) like Unity Foundation play an instrumental role in changing the lives of kids who hail from lower economic backgrounds and suffer from substance abuse. He explains, “Since CBOs are founded by individuals hailing from the same geographical area as that of these children, they can understand the mindset of these kids better.”
Forty-seven year-old Saikrishna Hattangadi is a far cry from the clichéd image of a central government employee. An affable, extroverted man, he is fond of sports and loves playing handball. Seven years ago, when he was involved with specially challenged kids as a handball coach of the Maharashtra team in the Special Olympics, he realised that he should work with them closely on a consistent basis. That gave him the idea of setting up Phoenix Sports, an organisation that would train specially challenged kids and encourage them to play with other children, in February 2006.
Hattangadi started off by conducting training camps and tournaments in handball for these children. He sought the help of his friends, some of whom were special educators and worked with such kids closely. They helped him spread the word among schools. Today Hattangadi has expanded his base to conducting camps in volleyball and basketball at Five Gardens in Dadar and Tilak Nagar. He also conducts musical evenings at the end of each tournament, usually held at Panchgani, and gives each student certificates, medals and sporting gear. “I don’t want to segregate these kids into winners and losers, so I award each one of them. I have also seen them been differentiated against by other children. Our idea is to empower them, make them confident, help them showcase their talent and ensure that they can participate in a general tournament too.”
Apart from training children who are afflicted with Down syndrome, Hattangadi’s organisation also trains children from lower income groups. Quiz him about why he chose handball to start off his organisation’s activities and he says, “It is the second most popular team sport after soccer in Europe. It inculcates team building spirit among kids and moreover I was trained in it, so it was the natural choice.”
Phoenix Sports has been raising funds by posting regular updates on Facebook, urging friends and family to donate and also seeking corporate sponsorship. Though Hattangadi is happy with his venture’s progress, he aims to expand across India soon. “Now we get children from distant areas like Nandurbar and Sangli. I want to reach out on a pan-India level.”