Rwanda's Youth Play for Hope in the Face of Daunting Challenges

Michael JeeCorrespondent INovember 30, 2009

In Rwanda, dreams—even for its youth—are a fleeting rarity that seemingly disappear with the coming dawn.

Three-quarters of the population live under the international poverty line of $1.25 a day, and, to this day, the country is still recovering from the inexplicably haunting and gruesome 1994 genocide that took up to a million lives.  

Countless others died in the regional First and Second Congo Wars, as well.

In the aftermath of Thanksgiving, it is meaningful to consider most Americans enjoyed a hearty meal with family or friends. 

Then, after the physical consumption came the material consumption of Black Friday, where people jostled, indulged, and splurged to their hearts’ delight. 

And don’t forget the hours spent in front of the TV, consuming—once again—visual stimulation in the form of endless football games and various Turkey Day specials.

Americans often complain over the pettiest issues and circumstances.  With the national and global economy teetering on the brink of major collapse, many families carry legitimate reasons for frustration and worry.  However, conditions here as a whole are a parallel universe compared to the world in Rwanda.

Many Rwandans are just thankful they still have living family or friends. 

Consumerism is a foreign, irrelevant concept.  Black Friday is an event that occurs weekly with the return of uncertainty and darkness.  As for football—let alone, sports, in general—most Rwandans would be lucky for an available ball of any kind.

Even the Detroit Lions’ ongoing woes look decent from their vantage point.

External effort to alleviate conditions in Rwanda have often been delayed by bureaucratic red tape or simply been ignored.  And virtually none have used sports as the medium to address societal problems . . . until Play for Hope, that is.

Play for Hope—recently incorporated and based in Raleigh, N.C.—is primarily the brainchild of Brian Beckman, a 2007 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Almost two years of full-time, “real world” work left Beckman largely dissatisfied and longing for more meaning.  When a few people incidentally contacted him about visiting Rwanda, he promptly quit his job and left for the heart of Africa—with no initial intent of immersion in full-time humanitarian work.  

That quickly changed.

“As I began to explore Rwanda a little more and study it a little more, I began to fall in love with it,” said Beckman.

“And while I was out there,  I saw just a large need for children.  There’s not a lot of adult involvement in a lot of children.”

Beckman encountered much, including meeting community workers  and organizing sports activities for street kids in Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda. 

These moving observations slowly lit a deliberate desire to help such children, and Beckman met with other people who shared a similar vision of ministering to Rwanda’s youth through sports, perhaps by offering free sports clinics or holding a tournament in the national stadium.  

He ended up not working with any of his brainstorming collaborators, but Play for Hope was basically born from these few initial meetings that occurred in the summer of 2008.

Upon his return to the States, Beckman managed to secure a partnership with the Luis Palau Association, based in Portland, which provided Play for Hope with the umbrella to withhold its startup costs.  Beckman also secured partnerships in Rwanda with Hope Rwanda and Africa New Life Ministries.

Currently, Play for Hope’s partnerships are all with Christian organizations, having originally capitalized on connections from interested faith-based networks.  Play for Hope has its own statement of faith, but Beckman firmly assures proselytization of a certain religious message is neither an objective nor actual practice of the organization.

“We’re not there to convert people,” Beckman said.  “What you do or don’t believe in doesn’t affect you from being in our program."

Instead, Play for Hope’s expressed beliefs exist to explain the group’s motivation, which is based on loving others with acceptance of the characteristics that define them.  

Beckman doesn’t shy away from these values because they not only express rationale, but ensure honesty and transparency.

“I’m going to tell you what we do, and you’re either going to buy into it or you’re not,” he said.  “I’m not going to pretend to be something that we’re not.”

According to Beckman, though, Rwandans either understand or could care less about Play for Hope’s background and have received the organization enthusiastically.  They continue to appreciate the group’s effort as relationships grow closer—especially with the children.

“The kids run to us,” said Beckman.  “After we did clinics there, kids would stop us on the street and know us by name, which is fairly uncommon, for them to know [a foreigner] by name.”

Barely a year into its formal existence, Play for Hope has already conducted a series of sports clinics in Rwanda this past summer, mostly near the capital city, Kigali.

The group runs its program like a basic sports camp.  Kids are divided into groups that are led by a coach.  The coach teaches the children the basic fundamentals of a specific sport, focused on basketball and soccer, so far.  Children practice drills then move to scrimmages.

Occasionally, Play for Hope will go work with a specific team, resembling a formal practice.  

The organization has recruited numerous children—many of whom are orphans or street kids, often both—from the jaws of neglect and detrimental activity including drug use.

By getting kids off the streets and integrated into a community centered around sports, Beckman hopes to rehabilitate them, get them into school, and house them with a caring family.

Some of these forgotten children now appear to be completely different individuals, especially a group of boys from the Busanzi neighborhood in Kigali.  These boys all walked 45 minutes one-way just to participate in Play for Hope’s program.

“They’re like family now,” Beckman said.  “They’re free from [drugs].  They have love and compassion.”

Most participants have been boys thus far, but only because Rwandan girls have traditionally not played or been exposed to sports, more so than the country’s boys.

“We’ve been unable to find any female coaches,” said Beckman.  “As we move forward, we’re trying to become more and more involved with girls.”

The vast majority of Play for Hope’s operations is accomplished through a small but dedicated group of volunteers.  All Rwandan coaches were screened and selected by local churches.  American workers generally have a background in athletics or a sports-related field.

“A lot of people within the sports world have never really had an opportunity to use their skills to serve,” Beckman said.  "[Play for Hope] allows them a field to use what they’re truly good at to impact people’s lives.”

Beckman’s future vision is to expand Play for Hope’s outreach to other countries in the region and incorporate other activities, such as music and drama, for the children.  He earnestly hopes to form more partnerships that will increase the scope of children’s activities and benefits, from food and housing to education and recreation. 

The US Soccer Federation and Peace Passers have sponsored Play for Hope to some capacity by donating soccer balls and equipment.

Beckman also wishes to structure Play for Hope so that it can serve as a bridge between American inner-city children and Rwandan children because “[inner-city kids] are a group in the US that don’t really get to experience humanitarian work.”

Of course, anyone is welcome to participate and contribute to Play for Hope’s cause.  Play for Hope’s main source of funding still comes from individual donors and benefactors.  

Nevertheless, money is neither the sole or most desirable method of involvement Beckman seeks.

“I love receiving a check,” said Beckman.  “But another way to contribute is to donate to local ball or equipment drives.”

Play for Hope has conducted donation runs all over the US—Georgia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Oregon to name a few.

Spreading the word about Play for Hope is another key way of support.

The most meaningful and personable way for involvement is training and working as a volunteer for actual fieldwork in Africa, especially if one is a sports enthusiast.

Despite Play for Hope’s successful integration and impact in Rwanda, it has encountered barriers and difficulties along the way.

“Whenever you’re working cross-culturally, you’re going to run into difficulties just based on the fact that what works in the US doesn’t necessarily work somewhere else,” said Beckman.

Every setback has produced a valuable lesson, and Beckman has learned to keep things very flexible to change.

“We’re not afraid too much of failure as long as we can improve and make it work,” he said.

Another issue Beckman has had to deal with was being lied to by some people he was trying to help—a reality in any job, but something extra hurtful in the nonprofit, humanitarian field.

“It’s hard when a few people in a community we’re trying to serve are stealing from you.”

Despite personal and organizational hurdles, Play for Hope remains steadfastly committed to the impact they have already made and the hard work that awaits.  When the going gets tough, Beckman reminds himself of why everything is worth doing—for the children.

“I want people to know that we’re raising future leaders of Rwanda by improving the lives of children who have been ignored by society—changing hopelessness to a hope for peace, a hope for a better life, a hope in God” he said.

Yes, dreams come by hard and are rare in Rwanda—even for its youth.  Yet, it appears Play for Hope’s tenacious, holistic approach have given dreams just enough of a fighting chance—one dribble, kick, and child at a time.

To find out more about Play for Hope or to discover ways for involvement, please visit its Web site at .


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