Gavin Hollett and Duncan Penn of Opportunitas Aequa with local children outside the Rebero Orphan Centre in Rwanda. (Photo courtesy Willa Shalit/Opportunitas Aequa)
Soccer: John F. Molinaro
Opportunitas Aequa: Soccer with a social conscience
Last Updated Friday, May 23, 2008
by John F. Molinaro, CBC Sports
Soccer is the world game, the beautiful game, and the No. 1 spectator sport in the world.
A sport that is followed with religious fervour by over a billion fans across the globe, soccer is also a massive money-making industry Spanish club Real Madrid earned a record $460 million US in revenue for the 2006-07 season.
Sadly, soccer has also provoked wars (Honduras and El Salvador briefly fought in 1969 following a disputed World Cup qualifying match) and it has seen its fair share of tragedies (96 fans were killed in the infamous Hillsborough Stadium disaster in England in 1989).
But soccer can also serve as a unifying mechanism and as a tool for social change.
Just ask Gavin Hollett.
In 2006, Hollett (then a University of Victoria student) and four of his classmates launched Opportunitas Aequa (Latin for equal opportunity), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life and opportunities for disadvantaged children through the construction of soccer fields and the donation of soccer equipment.
Like a lot of seniors in university set to graduate, Gavin and his friends were disillusioned and looking for a way to make a difference as they prepared to enter the "real world."
"After a few months of brainstorming while going to university, we came up with this idea to create an organization that would provide kids with a better opportunity to enjoy the game of soccer, especially kids who are in an environment where they don't have much time or opportunities to just be kids," Hollett told CBCSports.ca.
Why did they choose soccer as a vehicle to invoke social change?
"Soccer is personally meaningful to us. We all grew up playing it and it was a big part of our lives. We coached and volunteered, so we're pretty in tune with the soccer community, both locally and globally. It's the most universal sport and the one with the least amount of restrictions, in terms of what you need to play it," Hollett explained.
Idea came from Dallaire book
Hollett and his friends came up with the idea of Opportunitas Aequa after reading Shake Hands with the Devil, the real-life story of retired Canadian general Romeo Dallaire.
In 1993, Dallaire, serving as a United Nations general, was thrown into Rwanda with only minimal briefing. He was also leading a force that included ill-equipped, poorly trained soldiers, some of whom did not want to be there. Unsupported by UN headquarters, Dallaire and his troop of soldiers were incapable of stopping the killings, as more than 800,000 men, women and children were murdered in the Rwandan slaughter.
It was an inspiring passage in Dallaire's book t hat served as the inspiration behind Opportunitas Aequa.
"In Shake Hands with the Devil, Dallaire described a scene where he visited this refugee camp for the first time and he's overwhelmed by all the chaos and the horrendous things he sees, but off in the distance he see these kids playing and laughing," explained Hollet.
"He hears this laughter and sees the smile on their faces and he wonders how is this possible, that kids are actually able to laugh during in the midst of all this madness. So he approaches them and it turns out they were playing soccer."
"The children bound some banana leaves and some twigs together for a ball, and having played soccer all of my life, that image just stayed with me. That was the inspiration for OA," added Hollet.
Since Opportunitas Aequa's formation, Hollett and his classmates Andrew Brownlee, Andrew Pike, Duncan Penn, and Roberto Prieto have held free instructional soccer camps for underprivileged kids in Victoria.
Hollett and his cohorts have also tried to make a difference outside of their local community. They spent eight months collecting donations and equipment before embarking on a lengthy trip in the remote Ecuadorian province of Chimborazo in 2007.
"Project Ecuador allowed us to collect and distribute over 1,500 soccer balls, 1,000 pairs of cleats, and $20,000 worth of uniforms and other equipment. We spent two months in Ecuador and reconstructed two soccer fields with the money we raised and distributed equipment to 30 different communities," said Hollett.
He recently returned from fact-finding trip to Rwanda, where he met with members of the ministry of sport and culture and a few other Rwandan organizations to try and implement a multi-phase project.
"We want to return to Rwanda as early as July and put together the first phase of our project, where we work with two schools, reconstruct their fields with a sustainable irrigation system that collects rain water, and [we want to] improve the ecosystem there by planting local and native plants and trees," Hollett said.
Opportunitas Aequa is much more than a job for Hollett; it's a labour of love, allowing him to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged children by sharing his love of soccer.
"I started playing soccer when I was six. I always played and I benefited so much from it when I was a kid, so it's great that I can use my passion for the game and use it to fight for what we wanted, which is for every kid to have an opportunity to develop, grow and enjoy life," said Hollett.
For more information on Opportunitas Aequa, visit their website at http://oaprojects.org/
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