Sporting for a Change

Kimberley Weller
How one organization is using the art of sports to spur young people away from a life of crime and violence

Nothing makes 37-year-old Andre Wilson happier than when he is overseeing a game of soccer. In normal times, he’d be watching Jamaican boys and girls playing their hearts out — and learning valuable life lessons along the way.

Andre, founder and executive director of Youth for Development Network (YFDN), believes that sports are key to bringing some of the most at-risk youth from conflicted communities together. Through sports, Andre’s organization teaches, trains, and enables young people to identify their core strength and skills, with the aim to deter the youth from a life of crime and violence.

To Andre, this approach builds upon established neighborhood traditions:

“One of the things that I have noticed even from an early age, when a youth does not have food or even the right [athletic] gear, sports brought us together. Growing up, we would meet in the evenings, and playing sports was a natural way of building team spirit despite social and economic backgrounds.”

In 2011, Andre began YFDN to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach youth in Jamaica — those young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in school or training, do not have a job, and might have direct involvement in crime in violence. The organization reaches at-risk youth by visiting schools, community centers, and other youth-centered places to find candidates. YFDN offers those who join an opportunity to take part in activities and educational programs in a safe space. That allows the young participants to change their mindsets and attitudes so that they can successfully complete leadership, workforce development, and social enterprise training. YFDN also trains and supports juvenile correctional centers’ staff to help children and teens who are serving time in moderate- and high-risk institutions.

The Need to Sustain

While the organization was reaching and empowering some of the most-at-risk youth, it was also struggling.

“One of our biggest challenges as a young organization was, of course, funding and the lack of resources,” Andre admitted. “We lacked the ability to also emerge as one of the human development organizations that can attract international partners. We were just moving from program to program without any real structure.”

Andre reached out to USAID in 2019 for assistance. For USAID, which has partnered with the people and Government of Jamaica for more than a decade to address crime and violence by reaching at-risk youth, support to YFDN made good sense.

USAID provided financial and technical support to help YFDN access both human and financial resources for its programs, develop branding and marketing plans to promote the work of the organization, and establish a monitoring and evaluation system to measure its programs’ transformative impact on the lives of youth. The organization began to thrive, reaching 1,000 youth since its partnership with USAID.

The organization teaches young people work skills using sports as a development model, where counselors use games to teach soft skills like teamwork as a way to build trust and introduce larger life skills and training.

During a soccer game, for example, all young people on the field will sport the same clothing, identified by a blue T-shirt or the unique colors of the Jamaican flag.

However, if you watch for a bit, you’ll see that there’s much more to this game. For 20 minutes, young people will sweat on the field, dribbling, kicking, scoring, but then the rules will change. In demonstrating communication skills a no-talking rule is implemented — and if one team member talks it’s a penalty kick for the opposing team. Once the final whistle has blown and the game has ended a deeper discussion is had about the impact of the no-talking rule and how it affected the team’s efforts. This discussion allows for young people to share more meaningful examples of how rules affect their lives and how verbal/nonverbal communication affect their conversations at home, in their own lives, and how they imagine it will affect them in the workplace.

In addition to the games, YFDN also coordinates residential camps for at-risk youth preparing to enter the workforce. For many participants, sports are the initial draw, and the life and work skills come as a bonus. “I remember one young man telling me, ‘I did not know what the program was about, but I heard football and signed up,’” Andre says.

Safely Supporting Communities During COVID-19

In 2020, YFDN hit a snag. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization was forced to scale back on most of its face-to-face activities and create a blended approach through virtual learning and limited physical interactions with those young people most in need.

While COVID-19 has restricted the activities of YFDN, Andre is still hopeful.

“The dream is to continue to provide a safe space and offer systematic support to youth who are suffering from traumatic experiences and those who are illiterate and without the qualifications to be eligible for a job,” he said. “We want to give them the blueprint for their life so that they can become gainfully employed or start their own business, meeting the youth half way and to help provide structure and support for them and their families.”

Joseph Donaldson is an alumnus of the program and is now a full time maintenance technician specializing in repairs on mechanical equipment.

“The program is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” Joseph says. “I would have to find school fees, bus fare, and lunch to join other programs. This program helped me with all that. Who knows, maybe I would not be working right now if it wasn’t for joining the program. It helped me in every way of my life.”

This is Andre Wilson’s dream come true.

Since 2017, USAID through the Local Partner Development (LPD) Project has assisted more than 120 organizations like YFDN through training, grants, and other capacity-strengthening initiatives, positively impacting over 1,200 at-risk youth. Under the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, LPD’s aim is to support Jamaican institutions in becoming more effective in advancing collaborative, evidence-based crime and violence prevention strategies focused on youth at highest risk of becoming perpetrators.