When she started looking for a university course, Louisa Bavaro thought she was destined to become a teacher, but a life changing experience in East Timor put her on a different path.
A notice in the hallways of Strathfield's School of Exercise Science was the first step in a life changing journey for Exercise Physiologist Louisa Bavaro.
The notice was calling for third-year students interested in volunteering for a soccer development project in East Timor – Future in Youth.
“Through high school I had always been involved in social justice projects and outreach programs and felt through the first few years of uni life that I was missing that chance to pursue that passion again,” said Louisa.
“I signed up straight away, but didn’t tell anyone at the time because I knew I may have been easily persuaded out – East Timor has a rocky history and people’s initial impression may not have been positive.”
Exercise science lecturers, old friends and AFL competitors Dr Ross Smith and Dr Paul Callery established Future in Youth to get kids off the streets and into team sport.
“The idea, originated from a fellow ACU student whose mother was a clinic nurse who had volunteered in East Timor,” said Louisa. “The student, who had visited the region with her family, recognised that there was a need to engage young Timorese and encourage a healthy lifestyle in the community.”
In June 2010 a small group headed to Baucau, East Timor. Comprised of exercise science lecturer Dr Paul Callery, Brother Jude Butcher from the Institute for Advancing Community Engagement at ACU and seven students, including Louisa, the team spent a month working with the local community and determining the capacity for starting an ongoing community- engagement program in the region.
“We were the first year group to go, so you can imagine there were lots of plans that we had to adapt and be flexible in our approach when implementing them,” said Louisa. “We facilitated community engagement through a soccer program as it is an extremely popular sport among the kids."
More than half of the population are under 25-years-old and 80 per cent of youth are unemployed. There is such a high percentage of disengaged youth - they have absolutely nothing except each other and, as we found, a love for soccer!”
“[While in East Timor] we helped create teams, assign coaches from locals who were interested in the program. We trained the coaches – some only high school students themselves – and took the teams of children through training sessions and competition days.”
Wearing t-shirts with the words Ksolok, Justu, Respeitu – meaning fun, fairness and respect – it is in the hands of these coaches that Dr Smith hopes to entrust the future of the program. Extremely successful, in just three years of operation, Future in Youth has reached out to more than 2,000 young people in Baucau.
“We started with just under 200 children and by the end we had over 500 registered. They absolutely loved it!
“Children would come with one soccer boot and sock each on their dominant foot, or sometimes they saved a pair of fake Converse shoes in a special bag. Most of the time they played bare foot, generally on gravel and mud in rain, hail or shine.”
“They were very skilled at playing soccer but they generally had no concept of team work and that is what we tried to focus on. They never complained, they never appeared upset for any reason, they never showed pain – even a young boy who broke his arm.
“They may have had fantastic skills, but they were not accustomed to training sessions or drill work. Whatever we were offering they took it and never quit. They continued to show up and participate fully even if it was a little too easy for them. The one thing I absolutely loved though was that they never stopped smiling.”
The team helped disseminate messages about healthy eating through the program – emphasising the importance of drinking clean water and healthy food choices. The students also visited the local high school and taught English, East Timor’s fourth language.
“The language barrier we encountered ended up being one of our biggest advantages,” said Louisa. “Having that language barrier meant that the coaches had to have an active role within their team. All of a sudden they had responsibility and commitment to their young team.
“The level of respect we saw among the team was amazing. One of my favourite quotes is from one local young man we worked with quite closely who was in fact our translator. He said ‘I speak, they [the coaches] listen, they speak, I listen. I respect them, they respect me. We work together, we succeed together."
The team came to realise that the program had an impact on the coaches as well as the children.
“For some it also meant a little money to bring home to their families that month,” said Louisa. “Most importantly, by giving them a team to look after, they were given importance, confidence and purpose.”
“We were bridging gaps between the towns and certain gangs that some of the coaches were members of. We were building positive healthy relationships among the youth, providing a chance of leadership and social networking in a hobby they loved. We weren’t just coaching soccer – we were coaching a sense of wellbeing and a way of life for all.”
Passionate about her experience and how it shaped her life, Louisa presented at this year’s launch of ACU Foundation – the University's philanthropic arm.
“It is essential to provide these unique experiences to future ACU students but also to sustain the communities these programs are run in, as they throve off the hope and purpose that the programs give.
“Since 2010, I have been involved in speaking to Exercise Science students about our experiences in Baucau and what can be gained as a health professional.” Louisa explained that affording development to students through programs such as Future in Youth, provides students with a unique experience, one which could potentially change their future career path – as hers did.
Currently an Exercise Physiologist with Cerebral Palsy Alliance, Louisa initially thought she would become a teacher. “I was interested in health and working with enhancing people’s quality of life, and it then turned into thinking about PE teaching.”
“Studying Exercise Science at ACU gave me the flexibility to choose at the end of that degree which direction I wanted to take my degree – be that following on with a Diploma of Education, or continuing on to physiotherapy, or another health science field.”
“To be honest, I did not really know what Exercise Physiology, as a career path, entailed. In my second year of study I realised that, while I was enjoying our PE subjects, there were so many more ways to utilise the skills and knowledge we were building through the degree.”
“It wasn’t until my trip to East Timor that I finally decided to go with Exercise Physiology. I felt that was where I would be able to really put skills into enhancing people’s quality of life into action. “I learnt an amazing amount from my journey to East Timor, and it is somewhere I want to go back one day.”