Community Leaders in Campo Grande Propose New Alternative for Youth Athletic Development

Around 30 community members and volunteers met on the morning of Saturday September 20 in Campo Grande‘s Santa Margarida neighborhood in the first of a series of meetings to discuss the launching of a new cross-community sporting initiative: the League of Neighborhoods (Liga dos Bairros in Portuguese). The event, which took place in the local Colégio Santa Barbara school’s auditorium, welcomed participants of other sports-related projects to speak on the importance of athletic activity for youth development which was followed by a presentation on the new initiative and its potential for democratizing access to sports in lower-income communities. The new project–officially titled the League of Neighborhoods of the Capital and of the Interior of Rio de Janeiro State–seeks to fill a perceived lack of opportunities and necessary equipment for young athletes in lower-income neighborhoods, while using sports as a way of fostering values and contributing to the civic development of alienated youngsters. While one of its stated objectives is to provide new talent with the opportunity to develop their skills and possibly reach club levels, Liga dos Bairros is based on the idea that sporting practice is a necessary activity for both individual and communal well-being. “This is not about training the next football star, but about making young people better citizens through community-oriented athletic activity,” said Altair SantAnna de Souza, the meeting’s host and organizer of Liga dos Bairros. De Souza, along with fellow Liga organizer and physical education teacher Renato Bastos Dias, hopes to see the new non-profit initiative contribute to a process of social inclusion of kids and teenagers often given little attention in their schools and households. The meeting also included a series of short presentations by educators and community leaders invested in furthering opportunities for youth athletic development in Santa Margarida, as well as in other lower-income neighborhoods across Rio de Janeiro. Bastos Dias kicked off the event talking about the importance of sports in promoting positive health and hygiene habits. Remarking on factors from the discipline involved in keeping uniforms clean to the emotional guidance coaches often provide for their young athletes, the soccer and gymnastics coach argued that initiatives fostering sports participation can be thought of as public health projects. He also emphasized the need for students to bring their own filtered water, as the water available within or close to sporting facilities is often not filtered and can present a health hazard to those who drink it. Other speakers talked about many of the issues that non-profit sports initiatives face in Rio’s marginalized communities. Security concerns ranked high in the list of topics brought up during the event. Several participants decried the tendency of some parents and community members arriving drunk to youth games or bringing alcohol with them. Carlos Roberto, a 30-year member of Santa Margarida´s Neighborhood Association, criticized the “dismantling” of families in his community and claimed that many of the security concerns could be solved–among many other issues–if their young athletes received greater support and vigilance inside their homes. To that end, he recommended that parents should be motivated to join the new initiative and take a greater role in the athletic and civic development of their children. Santa Margarida band The difficulties of fundraising came up several times during the meeting, with some members arguing that finding private or public backing for programs working with lesser-known sports is very difficult in a culture obsessed with producing football stars. Paulo, a taekwondo instructor in the community, talked about the difficulty of securing donations and sponsorships for local martial arts initiatives, saying that for many of those working to foster a more inclusive athletic environment, the only financial backing they can count on comes from within the community. He said “there is no social project oriented towards developing athletes (in the community) so that they can get to the Olympics,” and criticized the uneven policies instituted in preparation for the 2016 Summer Olympics, arguing that the changes in Rio’s urban landscape have lacked accompanying human development. De Souza echoed these concerns about funding, noting it can be even harder for communities far from the city center to gain the attention of NGOs and sponsors, and saying that “we are happy, but also disheartened, when all the benefits only go to the communities in the South Zone.” The event organizer pointed out that one of the objectives of Liga dos Bairros is to foster collaboration among separate sports-related projects in order to gain more exposure and, consequently, more public or private backing. DSC_1167 At the end of the meeting, the organizers distributed booklets detailing the mission and organizational methods of the project. In its initial phase, Liga dos Bairros plans to organize a cross-community tournament projected to take place between April and July 2015. This competition would, at first, be centered on football, but its structure is applicable to any sport desired. The event team will include referees, assistant referees, a medical professional and several volunteers, as well as the organizers Altair SantAnna de Souza and Renato Bastos Dias. The initiative is seeking funding to cover the costs of labor as well as equipment and resources necessary for the tournament. Further meetings will take place to discuss fundraising strategies and possible ways of cooperating with existing NGOs working with athletic development in communities around Rio.