The Future in Youth program has grown beyond all expectations since its launch in 2010. Alisse Grafitti spoke to co-founder Dr Ross Smith about changing lives one training session at a time.
When ACU exercise science lecturers Dr Ross Smith and Dr Paul Callery were kicking around the idea of a soccer program to help young people in East Timor, they had no idea just how far it would go.
"In 2010, we planned for about 300 youth to participate and 500 turned up. The following year, the numbers increased to 800 and then to 1,000. We've reached the stage where we need to limit the number of participants to ensure we are balancing quality with quantity," Dr Smith said.
Future in Youth (FIY) is a community capacity building project that teaches leadership, health, and life skills to children and young people in Baucau, East Timor, through soccer.
Dr Smith said that when the program began, there was nearly 100 per cent youth unemployment in the region.
"It was a community frequently unsettled by hostility – primarily caused by gangs of unemployed youth," he said. "FIY promoted the important principles of ‘fun, fair and respect' that were transferable to off the field, and would help create a healthier and more harmonious community.
"We chose football as the means to promote these key messages as it is very much the nation's sport of choice. Many youngsters go around wearing the stripes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, or treasured Messi and Ronaldo jerseys."
Each year, the School of Exercise Science takes a group of third year exercise science students and staff to Baucau. They run coaching education programs for the young people, and a sports education program for the kids.
Hundreds of Timorese children show up every day to train no matter what the weather. Many have no shoes or are sharing a pair, and some walk several kilometres to reach the field.
"Competition for selection among ACU students is fierce," Dr Smith said. "Many of them have a truly life changing experience and wish to return at a later stage. In 2014, we even had one student pay her own way to come back and participate."
This year also saw two major firsts for the program. The inclusion of an ACU nursing student on the team, and the participation of an accredited FIFA instructor.
"Our nursing student worked closely with a local person to deliver a series of basic health messages about washing hands, brushing teeth and drinking safe water.
It's an area that we'll be developing further next year. "While FIY has been run by ACU for five years, it is intended that in the long term the program will be organised and managed by the community. To achieve this we've held an annual coaching education program for local people who volunteer to coach a youth team, with great success.
"Following discussions with the Football Federation Timor Leste, a request was made to the International Association of Football Federations (FIFA) to conduct a coach education program in Baucau.
"FIFA agreed and paid for an accredited FIFA instructor to travel from Malaysia to conduct a five-day program for 32 coaches in Baucau. The course was the first of its kind in Timor Leste, and the participants felt privileged to have the opportunity, and worked hard to learn as much as they could."
Dr Smith, a Brownlow medallist and AFL Hall of Fame inductee, said the challenge for the future was getting the Baucau community to really take responsibility and ownership of the program.
"ACU will continue to drive the program for now, but we are working hard to ensure it becomes an integral part of the activities in the community. Everything we hear from the coaches demonstrates just how important FIY is for the people of Baucau.
"I've had coaches telling me the children are being trained to play for peace, others saying they want to use their new skills to bring peace and stability to their society. One coach told me that the program has made the community so happy as their children, once so timid and shy, are now happy and free."