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By: Myra Ortega-Goco

The story of how 12 Gawad Kalinga Football youth get an experience of a life-time by going on a one month trip to Europe to represent GK and the Philippines.

It is 8:14pm on a rainy day in mid December in Mandaluyong, Metro Manila. Julian, son of Evelyn and Edwin Romero, both GK beneficiaries of Gawad Kalinga Tatalon in Quezon City is scraping off the remaining rice grains off the plate of his “unli-rice” meal at a local restaurant with Kevin Goco, a GK volunteer who runs and manages GK’s football/soccer program called “SipaG”. This is the first full meal of the day for Julian, who has been a part of the SipaG program since he was a small boy. Kevin decided to treat him and his teammates out for a special meal after receiving a tough loss via a penalty shoot-out in a major local tournament.

“Late na. Paano ka uuwi?”Kevin asks Julian as the plate is wiped clean of any remaining grains of rice

“Maglalakad lang pauwi, Coach.” Responds Julian with a mouth half full of food.

“O, bakit naman?” asked Kevin.

“Pag minsan wala akong allowance, nilalakad ko ngalang po papuntang training. Nung minsan nilakad ko pa galling QC papuntang Makati kung walang wala talaga.” Replies Julian.

“Don’t do that again. Kung may mangyari sa inyo, lahat tayo magkaka problema.I’ll try to find people to help. But never, ever travel alone ok?” lectures Coach Kevin.

Like many children who are part of GK’s sports program, Julian is driven/obsessed by a dream to have a better life for his family and to succeed in the sport that he loves. Values formation and life skills in the form of discipline, perseverance, respect,and goal-setting are taught to them through sports and life coaching done by coaches trained to emphasize holistic development over winning and results. In GK’s case, this is done through soccer on the streets, baseball, softball, and basketball.

“Children like Julian are extremely hardworking. We schedule practice at 7am (in McKinley Hill, over an hour away from Quezon City), and he shows up on his own sometimes at 6am, sometimes by himself, sometimes with no allowance to go home so I have to give him something in those instances.” remarks Coach Thomas Pfyl, a volunteer Swiss UEFA B licensed coach with Kaya FC, a professional soccer club in Manila.

More than a year ago, Coach Thomas, a former expat who was based in the Philippines from 1989 to 1992 and married to a Filipina decided to come back to the Philippines after retiring from a 31-year career doing construction in Switzerland. As a passion, Thomas also coached soccer/football for more than 20 years in Switzerland’s top soccer/football academies – FC Zurich and Grasshoppers. Thomas first heard of Gawad Kalinga’s involvement in promoting football for the poor when he returned to the Philippines, and since then has gotten heavily involved with SipaG offering scholarship places at Kaya FC’s youth academy to the children from GK. Coach Thomas is so invested in GK that he even picks up and drops off the children in his SUV to and from their GK communities for Kaya practices. Coach Thomas discloses, “I love working with the Gawad Kalinga children because they are hardworking, very respectful and have a fighting spirit. They always say thank you with the smallest gestures and acts of kindness.”

The following month, in January 2017, Julian together with 11 other equally-driven children from 5 GK communities across Metro Manila received a blessing of a lifetime – they all learned that because of their outstanding behavior in the GK Sipag program, they would have the chance to represent the country and Gawad’s Kalinga in the program’s first international trip abroad. Kevin immediately asked Thomas if he could train the kids, and without hesitation Coach Thomas agreed, suggesting that he would even host and sponsor the group in his home country of Switzerland as a side trip. Strivers like Julian, were the first children on the short-list.

“Olivier Girault messaged me around New Year and it really came out of nowhere. I dreamed of bringing the kids to Cebu or maybe Singapore. But to Europe? That was a crazy pipe dream. So I thought that I guess its true a lot Europeans are crazy or mad about football.” said Kevin on his first reaction to the trip. “GK Europe did a lot of the organization with GK Philippines as early as January, and we also got donors from GK USA and some of my friends to help make the trip possible with all the logistical costs. It was quite a large task as this was the first time the kids would travel on an airplane. We had no budget, no permits, no passports, and had 4 months to prepare all the supporting documents to convince the French consulate to issue these children and their chaperones Schengen visas.” adds Kevin.

When the trip was first announced internally, only a select number of GK leaders knew of the trip. Coach Thomas, organized a tryout, vetted the list together with Kevin and the staff of SipaG and conducted special training sessions/practices with the final list of children – 9 boys and 3 girls from all over Metro Manila. The children were selected based on their football abilities, over-all behavior and potential for leadership - as exhibited in their involvement in local GK activities. In the tryout announcements, GK purposely did not disclose the destination as GK wanted to give opportunities to kids who were truly dedicated and gave their 100% during trainings with the SipaG program and not those who just showed up to tryout because they wanted a chance to travel to Europe. Coach Thomas also spent his own personal funds to purchase sets of uniforms, jackets, clothes, shoes, and bags for the kids to use on the trip.

“We could have easily sent the best team to Europe just to win games, but that is not what this trip and our program is all about” says Kevin. “Of course, I want to win, I am a very competitive guy, but more important than winning, I wanted to send kids who we feel will be future leaders in their GK communities and will really grow from this once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was really about getting the kids who would best represent what GK and the GK SipaG program is all about. So even if we were to compete in the boy’s bracket against top competition in Europe, we felt it was essential to have girls of the same age on the trip. Our group was under-aged as well because we wanted some of the much younger GK youth to gain from the experience too.”

GK Europe, with the efforts of Olivier Girault, Wim Van Der Torre, Christine Bisch, Coach Thomas, and Philippe-Alexandre Vanhoye, a former French intern at the GK Enchanted Farm, tirelessly helped prepare the group’s itinerary through Facebook chats and Skype calls. Together they made the preparations for GK’s participation in local tournaments and tours where the team was housed and fed by local French families. The flights of the team from the Philippines to Europe were courtesy of AIR FRANCE-KLM’s donated mileage program with Gawad Kalinga.

Kevin made sure that all efforts were exhausted to provide the best for the least despite all the hiccups experienced along the way from the preparation until the trip itself. The team only secured their travel visas just 4 hours before their scheduled flight to Europe. The organizers also had to raise funds from donors in GK USA to help make the trip possible, making commitments to suppliers without even knowing where the money would come from. Kevin even had to advance a substantial amount of personal funds just to meet deadlines on commitments and to realize cheap fares/deals transporting the children within Europe but just like so many good things, everything came into place at the right time, funding was secured three weeks before the scheduled departure.

“I was not worried for one bit. Good things happen when the intentions are good and you give your very best for others, especially to these kids. I was cool throughout the whole process, except for maybe when I heard the kids still did not have their Schengen Visas 3-4 hours before their scheduled flight from Manila to Amsterdam! That was almost a heart attack and an expensive phone bill with organizers abroad.” laughs Kevin.

Upon their arrival in Amsterdam on May 12, the children visited the Johan Cruyff Foundation and went on a tour to the French Mediterranean cities of Marseille and Cassis before they headed to Barcelona for a 3-day training camp and friendly games with Spanish teams and coaches in Futbol Salou. Spain also treated the children to a tour of the FC Barcelona stadium and museum, a favorite club of almost all the children. From Barcelona, the team was hosted by GK Lyon in Lyon where the children visited local museums, learned from Sport Dans Lad Ville (a French NGO that also uses sports to mold values), had friendly matches with club F2L, and attended their first professional football match between Olympique Lyonaisse and Nice. After Lyon, the team brought their training camp to Unterwasser (at the foot of the Swiss Alps) and Zurich, Switzerland where they were hosted in FIFA by its General Secretary, Fatma Samoura and played a friendly match against Grasshopper Zurich’s Academy at FIFA’s main field. After Zurich, the children toured Paris, visited the Eiffel Tower and the Notre Dame, before they competed against top European football academies in tournaments held in Hazebrouck, Dirinon, and Begard. The team made it to the semi-finals of the consolation group of the Dirinon Cup, before losing on penalties. They also made the quarterfinals of the Begard tournament and won the Fairplay Award in Hazebrouck.

More than the football experience, the children and coaches gained important lessons from the trip.

“(Dito sa Europe) Lahat sila may disiplina at respeto sa kapwa. Nakita ko na sa Switzerland at sa Amsterdam, ang mga tao maalaga kahit sa mga hayop. Hindi nila sinisisi ang bawat isa pag may problema. Nakita ko sa mga naging kalaban namin sa football na sinusuportahan nila ang bawat isa na miyembro sa kanilang team.” says Julian when asked to share of his learnings about Europe.

Cian Galsim, of GK Barangka Drive, who served as the team’s Captain and described by the GK coaches as the one who has a great future ahead of him as a footballer and leader remarked “Sobrang saya ko po dahil first time ko pong makasakay ng eroplano. Best experience po yung nakapunta kami sa Paris, sa Eiffel Tower. Dati, kasi nakikita ko lang ang Eiffel Tower sa picture, pero ngayon, totoong totoo na po. Natutunan ko din na okay lang pala mangarap ng ganito. Na maari din pala marating ang ganito na gaya ko lalo na kung nagtutulungan. Natutunan ko rin iba pala pag may disiplina. Iba ang kilos ng mga taga Europe sa nakasanayan ko po. Kaya pala sila maunlad.”

“The behavior of the children improved exponentially from the time they arrived in Europe to the time they left. When they arrived in Europe, typical naughty habits were exhibited – for instance the boys would pee all over the toilet seats in public toilets, and there was a lot of bullying and factions within the team because the children came from different cities and different GK communities.There was also a culture of blaming others and not taking personal accountability for problems encountered – if there is a problem on the team, it is not my fault but always someone else’s. At the start, the game of soccer became a contest to see who was better and who could outdo and out blame each other. But after being together for a month, the children learned and experienced not just discipline but compassion, and really played and sacrificed for each other.We always related our team’s behavior to what we saw in real life – the discipline, order, and structure we saw in Europe to our behavior on the field. The theme of the trip became - DAMAYAN, HINDI LAMANGAN. WALANG IWANAN. If we lived by that ethos and standard, the trip would be a success. I don’t care about trophies, just the kid’s development.”

The results could not have been better. Ludovic Ladan, a French coach in Dirinon and who organized the children’s trip to Brittany France had this to say about the children, “They (the Gawad Kalinga children) are all great kids, and the French parents were very sad to see them leave.” He added, “In our years of hosting teams from all over the world, they are the best. The kids were very respectful and they even cleaned their rooms and made up their own beds.”

“Ludovic’s comment and feedback to me is a huge victory - bigger than any trophy or medal. It shows we are doing something right as a formation program. I was admittedly initially concernedabout sending young kids from our communities to stay with French families. But toilet seats were clean, and the kids ended up treating each other and their host families with love and respect.”, affirmed Kevin.

Fired up by the great outcome of the European trip, GK SipaG plans to open a socialized sports academy that uses sports such as football to develop children with talent like Julian and Cian from Gawad Kalinga and other poor communities. Coach Thomas has already pledged to help out with the program as a full-time coach.The proposed academy will be hosted in a GK community in Cavite complete with facilities and dormitories. GK will also target to provide a private home schooling education for the children that will surpass the standard of education in public schools. The education will be supplemented with exposure to self-awareness leadership seminars, youth entrepreneurship classes, nutrition, and financial literacy topics that are very important to stakeholders of the SipaG program.

“The intention is to take the kids who ‘want it’, exhibit high potential and desire to succeed out of their environment and enter into a structure that promotes discipline, love, and respect 24/7. Just like what we did in Europe, we take them out of their communities and into a structure and environment that promotes the values we want to teach with mentors and coaches focuses on development. Having them in a GK community with values formation is a great start, but so much more can be done with experiential interventions like sports. Unfortunately, there are still too many distractions, limiting belief systems, and bad habits that can be picked up primarily from the adults in GK communities that are beyond our control. These factors make working with high potential GK youth extremely challenging. If we have seen dramatic improvements in behavior from a 1-month trip, I can only imagine what having these kids for a few years will be like in terms of helping them reach their full potential. Such an academy can do that and will use sports as a medium to mold character and foster the spirit of working together, allowing children to realize opportunities in other fields/disciplines that will contribute to nation-building.” says Kevin.

GK would like to sincerely thank GK EUROPE, GK USA and all the individual donors and volunteers who made this trip possible.
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