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Vol. XXV No. 13, October 16-31, 2015

Getting street children into football

by Geeta Padmanabhan

Surinkumar 14, whose parents are casual workers in the construction industry, lives in Sathya Nagar, Jaffarkhanpet, and attends a Chennai Higher Secondary School (Class IX, third rank!). He plays football and wants to be Messi. Danushkumar 16 (father – self-employed electrician, mother – home-maker) walks to MGR Nagar Chennai School from Kasi Theatre and thinks Ronaldo is the best. “I watch both on TV.” Ramachandran, Class XII, MGR School, has been playing football for three years. “I’m a fan of all three – Messi/Ronaldo/Neymar,” he says. “I’ve seen their superb footwork on Ten Sports.” His father and mother run a cool-drinks/newspaper kiosk, and he “wants to join the football Premier League.”


There is a good chance the boys will make the grade, thanks to the swanky, world-class ground they have been gifted with. The “stadium” where I watch 75 teenagers practise football under coach Amulraj has tall chain-link fencing, beautiful astro-turf, well-marked goal-posts. It has a basketball court as neighbour. The children are kitted with proper stockings and shoes, and have colourful markers for tackle practice. There are toilets and a viewing area. It is a ground that stands testimony to what can happen if a committed social-worker, kind-hearted corporates and the Chennai Corporation get together.
S Balachandran, the force behind the football stadium, tells its story.
“For two decades, my NGO ‘Vatsalyam’ has been offering programmes tailor-made for the students of Corporation/Government Schools. We counselled girls on developing a can-do attitude, handed out books/stationery every academic year, launched ‘Grama Jyothi’ and ‘Operation Rural Health’. But the impact seemed limited as the beneficiaries saw them as acts of charity. They were passive recipients with no sense of involvement. We wanted to catch them young, train them in discipline and hygiene, but couldn’t even make a proper appraisal of their needs, leave alone address them. And in some ways we were replicating what the government was doing.
“Then it struck us: We would address middle-school students, we would speak to them through sports. Sport is a language they understand and receive with least reservations. A perfect vehicle to transport positive ideas to children!


“A survey done over two years told us there was little or no worthwhile sporting activity in these schools. Even where it happened, it lacked systematic approach. Armed with this information, we planned a 14-day summer football coaching camp in April 2014, and chose Chennai Higher Secondary School at MGR Nagar which had a big playground. We approached the school. You need permission from Municipal Commissioner Vikram Kapur for holding the event, we were told. Kapur instantly warmed up to the idea and granted permission – with the request that we submit a report.
“We were lucky to find R Amulraj, an NIS-trained coach with years of tournament experience. When we saw his love of teaching children matched his passion for the game, we knew we could pull it off. On April 17, 2014, when the whistle blew at 6:30 am, 40 boys assembled for the session. We expected the number to decline but the team stayed intact! Fine, we said, till we realised the children were reporting for the camp with nothing in their stomach. We got a caterer to supply sundal. He would appear with a box, stay through the session. On Day 14, to everyone’s surprise and delight, he drove in with a truckload of breakfast items and distributed them free! ‘This is my way of showing appreciation for the concept,’ he said.

“In the first week of May I submitted a detailed camp-report to the Commissioner. He glanced through it and asked if there was anything the Chennai Corporation could do. ‘Would it be possible for the works department to demarcate the play-area and provide goal posts?’ I wonderer hesitantly. The Commissioner scrawled a few lines on the report in green ink, and nodded.
“Three days later I got a call from the school HM. She was screaming excitedly, ‘Sir, what have you done?’ I rushed to the school and an incredible sight greeted me. The rough ground was being levelled by bulldozers and JCBs. I was told a state-of-the art football ground was coming up with Astroturf and floodlights! The ground was made in record time. I met Kapur, thanked him and promised to resume the camp the following summer. ‘It is a good project,’ he said, ‘continue it through the academic year.’ Coaching resumed in July when the school re-opened, and has been sustained – three days a week, two hours a day, between 3.30 and 5.30pm. The last 15 minutes are spent delivering a positive message with success stories of young achievers like Beno Zephine, India’s first visually-challenged IFS officer.
“With communication greatly improved, children openly discuss their problems with us. Now we are able to counsel, guide and, above all, instil in them hope that there are people around who care. Their confidence levels have zoomed. In Mid-September we went to Bengaluru to participate in an All India ‘under-14’ tournament. It is our vision that with this facility MGR Nagar Chennai Higher Secondary School will emerge as a vibrant sports centre for all Government/Corporation Schools.”
It is a proud neighbourhood now. “Earlier we played without shoes on rough ground but now my parents take my game seriously,” says Ramachandran. “We all have sports shoes, play tournaments across the city.” Amulraj is thrilled to hear that their academic work has improved. “I didn’t know about this school, came here to help the children improve when told of their disadvantaged background,” he says. “We don’t stop at sports coaching, we teach values – to forgive, to be respectful and kind.”
The teenagers thank Bala sir, but he says they should thank the Corporation. “We are grateful to Commissioner Kapur and Education Officers Lalitha and Shilpa. With more help we will start girls’ teams and look for a basketball coach.”
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