Post written by Gabe Hoffman-Johnson, creator of Futbols for Fambul Tok
I went to Sierra Leone in December to inaugurate the Footballs for Fambul Tok (FFT) program (see my earlier blog post for the program description). I want to do my best in this post to describe the amazing events that happened throughout the trip, and share the stories with everyone who supported the program, especially the Dartmouth College and Falmouth High School/Soccer communities.
Before I talk about the trip, let me back up and explain how the donations process went in the United States. Footballs for Fambul Tok was officially launched with the help of the Dartmouth College Men’s soccer team and the Dartmouth Athletic Department. We collected soccer ball donations at our home game v. Columbia on Saturday, October 26th, 2013, where fans got in free if they brought a ball to donate. We had an amazing turnout, and collected over 200 balls. Our Dartmouth soccer fans are amazingly supportive. One family alone brought close to 50 balls! (Thanks, Defreggers! You can see one of the happy recipients your generosity in the picture above.)
I orchestrated a similar event through my former high school coach, family, and friends, where the Falmouth High (Maine) boys and girls teams used their end of the season soccer banquet to collect balls. The Dartmouth and Falmouth soccer programs additionally donated a large number of training shirts for the members of the school peace clubs in Sierra Leone to use as uniforms.
Lots of people have volunteered their support, but I want to give a special shout out to Natalie Flowers, Drew Galbraith, Donnie Brooks, and other members of the Dartmouth Athletic Department, as well as Men’s Soccer staff for their help. I also would like to thank the families in Falmouth, especially the Bohrmanns and my longtime coach, Dave Halligan, for all their help with the Falmouth High School soccer teams’ major donations. The interest, excitement, and support from both school communities has been inspiring.
In Sierra Leone
Our visit to Sierra Leone was more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. My Dartmouth teammate, Colin Skelly, came with me, and we were there for a week in the beginning of December. I had visited Sierra Leone once during my freshman year, but it was Colin’s first time to Africa!
Immediately upon our arrival, Fambul Tok held a two-day training program for sixty teachers from thirty different schools across most of the country. The teachers involved lead the Fambul Tok Peace Club programs in their schools. These Peace Clubs had either recently been instituted or were in the process of being initiated in their schools. The Clubs are made up of predominantly middle and young high school age children, who show extraordinary efforts in the classroom or their communities.
The Fambul Tok staff thought linking FFT with the school clubs program would be the best way to make an impact, and would directly support Fambul Tok’s youth programming. Colin and I were able to donate four balls to each school with a Fambul Tok Peace Club. Most of these schools did not have any balls, or the balls they had were in bad shape. The teachers’ reaction to our donations was something I will never forget! There was so much gratitude and pure joy in the room it was quite moving and I found myself a little choked up, witnessing the first ‘Footballs for Fambul Tok’ having come full circle.
Originally my idea was for FFT to support Fambul Tok’s general work in the communities. However, our timing and focus aligned perfectly with the creation and goals of the Peace Clubs, so it made sense to evolve into a focus of supporting them. Focusing our donations on the Peace Clubs created more tangible results than a more general effort would have. The balls and equipment will provide an avenue for the Peace Clubs in the schools to distinguish themselves from other school activities, and to have a forum to bring students together and grow through the sport we all love. The partnership with the Peace Clubs further establishes the relationship between these participating schools and schools in the U.S. (Dartmouth College, Falmouth High School, and other U.S. schools with Fambul Tok peace clubs.)
Over the rest of our stay in Sierra Leone, we visited several of the schools represented at the workshop. We donated more balls for each school and presented Dartmouth and Falmouth T-shirts to the Peace Clubs to use for team uniforms. The best part about every visit by far was the reaction from the students; the smiles and cheers upon seeing the balls were priceless.
And of course, we played soccer! If there was one thing we did most, it was play with the kids. Everywhere we went soccer was the medium by which Colin and I related to and got to know the communities and children. It can be a little intimidating and even awkward to show up at a school full of children you cannot really communicate much with, but once we got the balls out the language barrier completely disappeared. The joy that crept over each and every one of the children upon seeing the soccer balls is something I will never forget. I wish I could do a better job of describing it for others to understand.
Interacting with the students was a very rewarding experience for me. It was interesting just to chat with them and to hear their stories and also their reasons for wanting to be a part of a Fambul Tok Peace Club. The president of one of the Clubs we visited was actually older than I am and is getting his education after having been a soldier during the civil war!
We also had fun answering any questions they had, which ranged from wanting to know if we had meetings under trees like they did, to if we were good at forgiving in our country (not so much, we told them). The were especially curious about what my ‘football name’ was, referring to the one-word nicknames of famous footballers like ‘Messi’, and ‘Ronaldo’. The students all had their own nicknames, which reminded me of the one I had when I was a little boy – people used to call me ‘Gabeto,’ synthesizing Gabe with a then-famous Brazilian star ‘Bebeto’.
Where to from here?
Going forward, I envision a time where every child in the Peace Clubs will have his or her own ball. More schools are being added to Fambul Tok’s network of Peace Clubs all the time, and I hope we can support their growth and impact. From the US side, I hope that this program will become an ongoing donation process that can persist in the Dartmouth and Falmouth soccer programs and communities for years to come. I also hope the donations process will in turn be a vehicle for educating and engaging the American communities with Fambul Tok’s message of reconciliation and community empowerment.
I learned that it is more important to grow slowly and sustainably, rather than grow quickly or grow too much. Rapid growth could risk corrupting the vision and values, or cause burn out and lack of following through. I’d like the work to grow and sustain itself over time, and have an impact that lasts, all the way around.
It seems ironic to me that here I am trying to do my part impacting these children’s lives in a positive manner, yet I’m sure I was the one who came away with a part of me changed forever. Just being there to witness how big of an impact FFT had on the children and adults alike was very moving. The fact that I got to do this through something I love – soccer – is even more amazing.
Being involved in this project has prompted a lot of bigger picture thinking on my part. I am very much looking forward to the continuation of Footballs for Fambul Tok and want to once again thank all those who contributed. The trip was an unforgettable experience for me and one I will treasure. But there is always more to be done!
Dartmouth College, Class of 2014