From the moment I heard of Yuwa I knew there was magic in the world worth cultivating. Having worked with numerous global sports outreach groups for over four years, and having volunteered with homelessness outreach services in the US since high school, it really does take something special for me to become this fervent and starry-eyed about a group.
The story of Yuwa begins with four friends and a shared vision to make a difference in the world. Franz Gastler, Greg Deming, Sephen Peterson, and Erik Odland all graduated from Edina High School in 2000. In 2008, they co-founded a soccer program in the Jharkhand state of India. Today, there are more than 200 girls on 13 teams in the Yuwa program.
Through team sport, Yuwa provides a platform for young women to gain confidence to make a change in their world.- Franz Gastler, Yuwa co-founder
Thanks to Jeb Brovsky’s well-publicized trip to India last year and his visit to a Yuwa camp, as a part of his Peace Pandemic tour, I gained insight into the beauty of the Yuwa program.
Instinctively, my heart leapt at the focus Yuwa has using football as an outlet to promote livelihood improvements for young women in villages in India. My father was once in a similar environment -- village life in India is challenging to say the least. His life story has taught me that with some encouragement, and with just one reliable support structure (a family member, a mentor, a coach, a friend) a life can be transformed and a child can be empowered to become the adult he/she dreams of growing up to be. This is the hope that I have for all of Yuwa’s girls. And this is what I saw when I visited the Hutup Village location of Yuwa this month.
My first Yuwa practice: The head coaches divide a large group into sections led by senior girls. Coaches supervise as senior girls lead core drills and assume responsible leadership roles with teammates. Franz and I watch a girl named Sunita work with a fairly large group of 15-20 newer players, both boys and girls. Sunita is one of the more serious players I meet during my stay. She is usually quiet, but as I watch her lead the group, I can see that she is confident in her role as mentor. At one point, Sunita has her group form a large circle. A single ball is passed around the circle with a single “defender” in the middle. A sort of keep-away. I notice right away that it might run a bit smoother, that the kids might be more engaged if they had multiple balls and multiple defenders in the middle. But Franz, astute coach that he is, approaches me (after walking over to Sunita) and asks if I know what is missing. I think I’m pretty smart so I give my answer before he proclaims, “kids smiling, kids having fun!” That’s what was missing at the heart of the drill. And that is exactly what he had just let Sunita know who proceeded to calmly introduce more balls and defenders into the practice circle.
The smiles and the laughter come instantly. Yes, more balls and more defenders did enhance the drill, but what was really missing was the element of fun that lies at the core of all Yuwa activities. It’s the joy of it all that makes Yuwa so special. Franz and his team provide girls with something that the harsh realities of life in an Indian village so rarely offer; fun and the chance to be a kid. The girls show up six days a week for this. They save money to buy shoes for it. They give their time and energy to allow for something pure and perfect in a world where there is so much missing: running water, electricity, healthful meals, solid schooling, warm water.
Reflecting on the experience, I am overcome with admiration for these girls. They have found something that every human being lives to discover; the joy that wakes us up every morning and sends us running out of the house at 5am. Happiness.
I was only there for two days but I feel fortunate to have seen a practice and a game in a nearby village in the foothills of Jharkhand. A bit of background on Jharkhand reveals that these girls have their work cut out for them from day one in order to come to practice 6 days a week at 6am. Jharkhand is one of the most dangerous places in the world for human trafficking and violence. An estimated 30,000 people, mostly young women, are trafficked from the state each year. Girls in Jharkhand have little to no education. Many are forced to become young mothers and/or victims of trafficking.
Recently, Yuwa was awarded a Gamechangers grant that will fund a football field and learning center built by Architecture for Humanity and Nike. Despite their surge in popularity, Franz and his coaches remain humbly focused on teaching the basics: having fun, playing more and talking less, saving money for shoes, taking control of team attendance, setting goals, and teaching girls how to become mentors to new players. These core fundamentals lead to dramatic results.
Yuwa provides every new team with a coach, but it’s the girls who must schedule practices, get to the field on time, take attendance and save money for a soccer ball, all without financial help from Yuwa. After about four months of practicing, about 20 days a month, Yuwa finances two-thirds of the cost of a pair of shoes. The girls’ savings pay the rest. The program inspires a sense of self-respect, dedication, commitment and confidence, both on and off the field. Yuwa girls stand a better chance of avoiding the pitfalls of life for women in Jharkhand.
Soon after I arrived at the Yuwa practice ground, Franz had me join a group of girls who play barefoot and walk an hour each way to get to the field. The game unites people from all walks of life and with it the spirit of the girls immediately focused all my energies on playing with them.
I want to help create opportunities for these girls to cross both the visible and the invisible borders that society has imposed on them. There are so many talented and remarkable girls at Yuwa whose potential, both on the pitch and in school, is waiting to be unleashed to the world. Unfortunately, the infrastructure for careful talent development and progression is lacking in India at the moment. Given political corruption in the state of Jharkhand, it is especially difficult for the girls, as they advance, to get the appropriate exposure and training required to grow as athletes.
This is only a taste of the Yuwa experience. Franz and his colleagues have established something profound and I am proud to introduce Yuwa to the 1L community.
I'll be visiting the Hutup village again this summer to conduct a series of 1L video interviews. In the meantime I’ll be brushing up on my Hindi!
For more information on the Yuwa program please check out their website.
Today, we are rallying in support of a 14 year old Yuwa girl named Pushpa, who was recently accepted into an exchange program with the Colorado Rush, beginning next month, thanks to support from Peace Pandemic founder Jeb Brovsky and Rush Soccer CEO Tim Schulz.
Thanks and 1L,
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