It has been a few weeks since I’ve returned to Bacalar. Not much has changed since I was last here - except the heat, that has definitely gotten fiercer. I have quite a bit of preparation to do before the programme starts. It’s been a hectic time between making sure things are in place for the volunteers and setting up the academy, from hanging curtains to visiting schools.
Amongst it all, I got to visit the schools again. The first time I visited the schools, I was very excited to see the girls that I might one day coach, but it felt like a bit of a surreal prospect at the time. This didn’t make me hesitate to invite them to participate in our football academy for any girl that is interested in playing! But more than that, I didn’t fixate over the commitment it represented to promise a space just for them to play and grow - an experience that they have never been offered before. Looking back, it is probably best that I didn’t linger over the weight of this responsibility because that might have scared me enough to stop me.
A few months later, here we are, a week away from the inauguration. This time round, going to schools was not only an opportunity to give the girls an actual date and place where they would be able to sign-up, it was also a chance for me to grasp the essence of the project.
I have spent the last few months, promoting the project to volunteers, potential sponsors, other organisations, friends and family. I familiarised myself with the ins and outs of the football industry, the volunteer industry, entrepreneurship and memorised my spiel as to where Girls United could fit amongst it all. But whilst I was going around spreading the word to anyone who would listen, there was plenty of room for worrying. There are so many potholes to avoid on the road for a not-for-profit, start-up – almost as many as there are on road leading up to the pitch in Bacalar! The hardest thing to define was where Girls United would sit within volunteer-led projects aimed at low-income areas.
It is a scary subject: from angry academics deeming it voluntourism and neo-colonialism to local politicians that are keen to jump on the non-stop wagon to the people’s hearts. I don’t blame either. There is more than enough proof to show the negative effects of entering a foreign country under the pretence of making a difference and aiding communities without the right skills or knowledge. And well, why would any politician dismiss the opportunity of joining a cause that required minimal work and please his electorate along the way? Two birds, one stone.
I was very worried by the prospect of doing more harm than good, when ultimately my sole intention was to improve, if only slightly, the range of opportunities for girls of these communities. The burden of knowing that we might do the contrary of our intended goal is frustrating as a leader on this project. Nevertheless, it is important to consider these dangers and go about the project in the right way in order to avoid these potholes. What is the long-term plan? How will this be sustainable for the community? How will the project incite a true sense of equality and inclusion between foreigners and locals? These are the questions I set out to answer. Yet it wasn’t until I was there in the classrooms, experiencing the girls’ excitement and understanding their daily life that I started to feel more at ease with the subject.
This project isn’t about aid or giving, it is about distributing. Distributing the opportunity to be part of a team from those who have had it, to those that don’t. As a distribution, it goes beyond providing aid or a fun summer distraction, it becomes about creating the structure for a project that can be adopted and sustained locally. Likewise, the people that involve themselves in this particular project must go beyond being foreigners abroad, taking token photos, they are people that have the desire to share and contribute to the distribution so that these opportunities reach more corners of the world. The commitment of Girls United is to support the community of Bacalar on their journey towards an established, well-rounded academy and to keep recruiting individuals to help along the way.
That said, I have already been lucky enough to be surrounded and supported by those genuine people. They are the reason on June 11th we will be at the pitch greeting anywhere between 5 and 50 girls that want to play football. The volunteers have started to arrive and the project is taking shape. Next week volunteers will have a coaching course and it will be the first official week of the Girls United programme, how very exciting.