As our bus pulled into the Pinhais favela on my first day of the project, everything was as expected. Dogs running the streets, poor conditioned housing, graffiti, random horses on the streets.. ok maybe I wasn’t expecting the random horse but everything else looked as though I had imagined a community in that part of the city might look. So far I was right on in my expectations, but that turned in a heartbeat whenever the first kid that I was able to meet jumped on the bus once we stopped at his home pitch and greeted me with a huge smile and by saying good morning in a mix between a British and portuguese accent. I was the last one on my team to join the project and all others but a few of us were from England.. so it was definitely easy to see the kids had been listening to my new friends speak with their english accents. For the first few days I was on the project we volunteered at the local school because the grass pitch had been flooded the day before my arrival. My first day was hard.. really hard. We began with a small warmup on the outdoor concrete slab they used as a pitch. The goals on either side did not have nets and pigeons made homes in the top rafters. I then noticed that there were some kids without shoes, some kids in shirts with holes, and some kids who were clearly cold but didn’t have sleeves to cover their arms. As I stood there taking in the scene I knew I had made the right decision in coming to Curitiba. For the first time in a really long time I felt like I was a part of something way bigger than myself. It’s one thing to read, hear, and see these types of situations in movies but it’s a whole other whenever you witness it with your own two eyes. I joined in with the group masking my emotions and the urge to breakdown because I was feeling bad for the kids. I then quickly realized that the kids didn’t want me to feel sorry for them, they’ve lived in these conditions their entire life, they don’t know any different. What they wanted was for me to kick the ball back to them and share a smile. So that’s what I did. I emerged myself into the situation where smiles and pointing was our communication and began interacting with them. It was amazing how quickly my emotions changed from feeling sorry for them to just pure joy. Hearing children’s laughter might honestly be the best thing in the world. Despite not having shoes, or shorts that fit, or tops that kept them warm when we brought that futbol out it was all they wanted.
Each day we would play in the mornings from about 9am to 12pm and then go in and eat lunch at the community house. Outside of my own family and close friends I’ve never experienced love like that. Being the newby to the group, the sweet lady who cooked our meals noticed right away. Even though we didn’t speak the same language the warmth of her smile, inquiries, and welcoming gestures to a small soul from Texas made me feel right at home in a world that I had never known. The entire family was actually like that. Her husband always had a smile on his face and their son and daughter have quickly became my facebook friends :)
One of the days we visited the classrooms and the community leader spoke about the importance of not doing drugs and staying in school. In Pinhais they have problems with teen pregnancy, most girls getting pregnant at the shockingly early age of 14 and fatherless children due to drugs and alcohol. The community leader was the sweetest man. He spoke broken english but through his daughter and wife we were able to communicate. He was constantly reminding the kids that we had came all the way from England, USA, Columbia, etc. and that there is a world out there where people get along no matter where they are from and unite for proper reasons. He was a strong man as he had grown up in these same type of conditions. Now he spends his time and any bit of money that he has on these kids to ensure they stay in school and fulfill their dreams of one day becoming a futbol player. He expressed his gratitude multiple times for the jerseys that my club, FC Dallas, had donated and it was always fun to see the kids show up sporting FCD.
Most days we were on the concrete pitch but for the last few days we were able to get back out on the grass pitch where you could tell the kids really felt at home. I’m definitively not an expert in coaching soccer, but kicking around the ball and teaching the younger little guys the MC Hammer dance was where I found my forte. We even had them reciting the USA “I Believe” chant at one point and though at first they looked at me crazy after a few attempts of trying to get them to do it they ended up loving it and asking me to repeat it over and over again. I loved being able to just act silly and get a laugh. My heart would melt every time they would look at me and smile and say one of the english expressions they had learned, “thank you”.
I could go on and on about different experiences and emotions that I felt. Some of them I want to keep private because it was just such a personal experience that I want to treasure. However what I will share is what I learned from it all and that is that my job wasn’t to go in and try to make the kids live the life that I was so privileged and blessed with growing up. My job was to simply show up with a smile on my face, joy in my heart and be a role model by my actions and the way I treated others. In fact turns out I probably didn’t teach the kids much of anything, they ended up teaching me that there is always something to be thankful for.
It didn’t take long for me at all to fall in love with this project and the people of Parolin. I felt immediately connected to the kids through our mutual love for soccer and their endless enthusiasm to learn. While all the other projects are outside the city of Curitiba, Parolin is in the inner city. The favela community (our version of inner city projects) is a harsh upbringing for the kids as the drug ridden streets and crime rule the community. We’ve spent time coaching and mentoring the kids of this favela as a reward for those that are attending school and church on a regular basis. This formula has been put into place in this community as a way to instill discipline and structure.
Our project is based in a 3G covered field house where just a few streets away from the pitch lies the worst favela that Lionsraw has seen as a team. Our kids are ages six to about sixteen and about 98% are boys. We have morning sessions with the little ones and then more technical afternoon sessions with the older kids. These kids are amazing soccer players! They are mini versions of Neymar dancing their way around each other like you wouldn’t believe. And tough…some of them play barefoot or in socks. If they get knocked down they don’t whine or complain and quickly get back up and get involved. They are so eager to learn whether it’s a new foot skill or to simply count to ten in English. The children have great respect for all of the coaches and volunteers on the project. Each morning they’ve greeted us with smiles, handshakes, and fist bumps and thank us before they leave in the afternoon.
Aside from soccer, we were lucky enough to spend last Sunday attending church with the kids and their community. It was a great experience to see them outside of the pitch engaging with each other on a different level. Most of them attended without their parents knowing their incentive was that they got to finish the day on the pitch. Their church provides a great support system for the kids so I hope they continue to participate and attend.
In the short time that I’ve spent here I can say have been some of the happiest moments of my life. My team of fellow coaches, the kids, and the community have warmed heart forever. My hope for these kids is that they can find enough inspiration to continue on their paths of education and pave their way towards a brighter future despite the struggles of the Parolin community.