Opportunities Aequa is a non-profit organization that uses the power of soccer to create healthier environments for war-affected children around the world. ((Gavin Hollett/Opportunities Aequa))

Gavin Hollett didn't have time to slow down when he was suffering a fever and nausea from the malaria he came down with in the dry heat of Gulu, Uganda.

It was early June and Gavin, a 25 year-old from Victoria, B.C., was too busy hauling dirt, rocks and materials for the new soccer pitch he was helping build to let they effects of the illness slow him down. He wasn't alone; a handful of others from his Canadian crew of youth volunteers were also suffering from malaria, which causes fever, but they too were so committed to the cause that they kept on working.

They wanted to finish the task they firmly believed would help the war-affected children of Uganda.

Opportunities Aequa is a registered, non-profit charity established to run soccer camps, build new fields, and distribute soccer equipment in poor and war-torn countries. It was formed three years ago and is led by a group of Canadian university graduates. OA has given more than 7,000 kids improved access to soccer activities and equipment in Rwanda, Ecuador, and Uganda. More than 1,500 balls and 900 cleats have been distributed. Just a few weeks ago, OA volunteers visited Uganda to organize funding and build soccer pitches in the city of Gulu. For more information on the charity or about volunteering, check out the OA website at www.oaprojects.org.

"There are very few authentic platforms that will bring people together like soccer, it's common ground for almost everyone," said Hollett.

OA volunteers have scheduled peace-building exercises and conflict resolution talks in the midst of soccer camp activities. Local coaches have learned how to use situations that occur during a soccer game to illustrate and discuss conflict resolution.

"Those talks would not have been heard by as many children if soccer wasn't a component of the activities," Hollett said.

"For most of the children and youth, they find it very difficult to have a discussion about peace … soccer allows that gap to be bridged."

Although many participants in the soccer camps have suffered during their young lives, Hollett credits their strength and refusal to give up.


Gavin Hollett, bottom, with Opportunities Aequa youth leaders in Gulu, Uganda. ((Opportunities Aequa))

"These individuals have been able to push past all of that … no obstacle in life is too big to try to overcome."

Finding a common ground

Right to Play, an international humanitarian organization, sends top athletes to 23 different countries around the world to inspire children, raise awareness and provide the opportunity to play sports.

Spokesperson Simon Ibell said participation in the sport itself is effective, but it's also "the values of conflict resolution and health promotion that help more."

Hollett believes it is important to help resolve conflicts.

"Something as simple as soccer can help to build a lasting peaceful community," he said.

Ibell said the odds of resolving conflicts are increased when sport is a part of the process. 

"Sport is the vehicle for that change, and it's an important part of learning those life skills," he said.

Seven-time Tour de France winner and Right to Play ambassador Lance Armstrong said sports put children on a healthier development path.

"Sport has the power to change and heal lives, to build self-esteem, confidence and leadership, and to create extraordinary possibilities," Armstrong is quoted as saying on the website  www.righttoplay.com.

An appreciation for life

Hollett said OA has given him a better understanding of the hardships those living near a conflict have to deal with and helped him appreciate "the relatively simple difficulties that Canadians have to deal with."

"In a community where children were being abducted and used as tools in war only two and a half years ago, soccer is one of the few things that mobilizes and excites children enough to come together," said Hollett.

"To see the smiles on children's faces makes our athletes even more thankful for what they have," Ibell said.