Valerie Henderson and three other American soccer coaches (Karen Willoughby, Janine Szpara and Anna Shortt) recently returned from Singapore, where they spent 10 days on a soccer exchange program.
They were sent on a grant by the U.S. State Department through The International Center to strengthen relations between the United States and Singapore, promote understanding between the two nations, and empower women through the medium of sport.
Throughout their stay, they worked with more than 400 boys and girls ages 12 to 18, including athletes from the Special Olympics Singapore, children from the Jamiyah Children's Home orphanage, and players from junior colleges and youth programs across Singapore. They also worked with 40 local coaches, including the Singapore national team coach.
I was already feeling emotional as we walked the halls of the Jamiyah Children's Home in Singapore. The headmaster, Mr. Sophian Kayat, explained that this was a home where children with broken dreams came to have their dreams restored, that they treat the home as an academy and work to be a family and excel together.
We turned the corner to see a line of boys holding drums. "Here's the welcome crew," he explained as I choked up a bit more.
We entered the auditorium to find the rest of the 85 children on their feet clapping for us.
Mr. Kayat seated us in the front of the room for the presentation. As a slideshow recounted the success stories the orphanage has had, a little girl came on stage to play piano. She opened with a beautiful rendition of Pachelbel's "Canon in D" and segued into "What Are Words" by Chris Medina. Immediately the entire group of 85 began to sing.
Needless to say, I could not hold back my tears. I felt so incredibly moved by this group of hurt, yet hopeful, children.
Yet it was our job to move these kids, not the other way around. These children had already found the healing power of song, but it was our job to bring them the lessons of team sport. In the moment, I found myself speechless.
Luckily, Karen Willoughby took the lead, thanking them for such a beautiful presentation: "You don't get to choose your family. You don't always get to choose your circumstances. But what you do choose every single day is your attitude and your actions."
With the floor open, the other coaches and I felt ready to share our experiences: the joys that the sport has brought us, the struggles that we, or our families, have had, and the light that soccer has brought to us. We hoped to show them how to make the right choices, how to use sport as an outlet and growth point.
When we hit the futsal (a form of indoor soccer) court -- the closest thing they had to a soccer field -- we started with a fun warm-up that included all 85 children. We sent them off for a quick water break, but when we reconvened, we found that we were missing half of the girls.
Apparently, the boys had told the girls not to come back, that now the soccer part would begin, and soccer is a boys' game. Many of the girls had never played soccer and agreed that they shouldn't come back to the court to continue. This is not the statewide-accepted belief in Singapore, but it is a somewhat common one and was very strong in this Muslim orphanage.
With our goal being to spread the joy and benefits of soccer to all in Singapore, but specifically to help empower girls and young women, we encouraged the girls to return to the court. Many of them agreed that soccer is a boys' game and were reluctant to come back.
I’m not naive enough to think that all of Singapore will be changed because of us. I’m sure we left that orphanage with many of the boys and girls still believing that soccer is a boys’ game. But if we can start a change in the perspective, spark belief in one girl’s mind, acceptance in one boy’s heart, then I know we are making a difference.
We vowed to do our best with those who remained. We started simply, with little relay races. When we had everyone laughing and more comfortable, we brought out the soccer balls for dribbling relays.
After we had explained, a little girl came up to me and pulled on my shirt. She whispered, "We can't dribble. We've never done it before."
With an extra demonstration and a little more reassurance, she took off in her sandals, chasing after the ball.
"That looks like dribbling to me!" I said.
Despite having absolutely no soccer background, the girls picked up the game quickly. They were very raw, but they laughed and worked hard, and competed.
When we finished the session, we asked, "Who here did something today they'd never done before?" All the girls raised their hands.
"Who here learned something or got better today?" All the boys and girls raised their hands.
"Boys, give the girls a round of applause if you think they did well today, if you think girls can play soccer." All the boys clapped.
Once again, I felt incredibly moved. The girls had gone from feeling they couldn't play soccer whatsoever to laughing and competing on the court. They had learned that they too can have the joy of soccer in their lives.
But the lesson extends to so much more than just playing soccer. When someone tells you you can't do something, you often believe it. And if you never try, you seal that belief. As Karen said, "You can't always choose your circumstances." You can't choose what people are going to say to you or about you, but you can change what you do about it. You control your effort and your determination. That translates to every part of your life.
I'm not naive enough to think that all of Singapore will be changed because of us. I'm sure we left that orphanage with many of the boys and girls still believing that soccer is a boys' game. But if we can start a change in the perspective, spark belief in one girl's mind, acceptance in one boy's heart, then I know we are making a difference.
Singapore is a beautiful city-state -- clean and safe, yet rigid. There are strict rules about sports and a tight understanding of the division between boys and girls. In general, sports are not a highly encouraged activity, as they are seen to distract from the academic prowess that is highly valued.
What we hoped to share is that sport is a way to enrich lives, a means to better cultivate skills such as leadership, determination, discipline and acceptance. It does not deter greatness. It fosters healthy lifestyles and happiness.
Despite our cultural and geographical differences, the game is the same; the ball is round, the fulfillment, benefits and lessons that the game teaches are the same. May everyone have the opportunity to learn that.