Creating change through soccer

By Simon Fudge/ Making social change can come in many forms, and the game of soccer is seen as one way to create opportunities for those less fortunate. In the summer of 2006, five University of Victoria students with a love of soccer formed the charitable organization Opportunitas Aequa or OA. The organization uses the world's game as a tool to create a positive environment for children and youth by making the experience of playing soccer more accessible through the construction of fields and the donation of equipment. One of OA's founding members is Vancouver Whitecaps intern Gavin Hollett. Since September 2007, Hollett has been assisting Whitecaps director of professional teams Greg Anderson with various development projects through strategic planning and vision building. When not dedicating his time to the club, Hollett also serves as OA's chief executive officer. He explains the inspiration he and his four founding colleagues – Andrew Brownlee, Andrew Pike, Duncan Penn, and Roberto Prieto - had for creating OA. "There was a passage in retired Canadian general Romeo Dallaire's book describing his time in Rwanda prior to the genocide," Hollett told "He encountered this refugee camp, where there was total chaos. However, in the midst of all this chaos, there were these children that were playing soccer and having a good time. In that moment, the kids were able to escape from the harsh realities of their situation and just play soccer. For Dallaire, that was an incredibly powerful moment, as it was for me. Soccer has been a huge part of my life since I was five-years-old, as it really helped me develop quite a bit." OA's first major project took the group to South America and the remote Ecuadorian province of Chimborazo in early 2007. From February to March, 'Project Ecuador' saw the delivery of over 1,350 soccer balls, 850 pairs of soccer boots and runners, $20,000 worth of school uniforms, as well as a variety of other soccer-related equipment to the youngsters and communities in the region. The group also helped re-construct two soccer pitches during their time in the Ecuadorian Andes. "From the summer of 2006 to December of that year, we were fundraising and collecting equipment before shipping it down for free in January 2007," Hollett said of the planning for Project Ecuador. "We then spent two months in rural, mountainous Ecuador re-building two soccer fields and working with the local community. When we finally got the equipment out of Ecuadorian customs, we spent two weeks distributing all of it to approximately 30 communities." Though Project Ecuador was a success, the obstacles and challenges of their maiden trip prompted OA to plan more extensively for their next overseas endeavour. At the beginning of April, Hollett and OA senior executive Duncan Penn traveled to Africa to identify potential project sites in Rwanda and Uganda. Hollett explained the importance of the four-week visit to their African plans. "If we had gone down to Ecuador even three months before that first project and got a better understanding of the people, cultures, environment, and infrastructure, then we would been more mentally and physically prepared for the work that we did," he revealed. "The main point of our African trip is to go and listen to the people who are there, and show them the things we are able to do for them. We really want to listen to their needs and what they want because we're really excited for the potential of Rwanda and Uganda, and what we may be able to do there." Another unique aspect of OA is its use of media and communication to not only inform the public about its organization and projects, but also give donors a clear idea of how their contributions are helping those in need. "We try and create a large layer of transparency between the people who have supported us and our organization," Hollett said. "We're keen to provide as much content online, so that people can see how their small, medium, or large financial contributions are actually having a significant impact in these communities and the people that live there. We encourage people to follow along and give us their feedback." OA plan to embark on 'Project Rwanda' in 2009. As for future projects in the years to come, Hollett insists their efforts could lead them to anywhere in the world. "There are no restrictions in terms of where we are willing to do these projects," he said. "Any city, village, or organization that could benefit from what we can put together is a potential place that we would work in. It doesn't matter if it's Cuba, North Korea, South Africa, or even Vancouver. If the project is right and suitable, there are no limitations to where we would actually work. In terms of what we are planning right now, Rwanda and Uganda is our next focus, though there is even talk of doing a small project in Guatemala in December of this year." For more information on Opportunitas Aequa and how you can assist in future projects, please click here for the organization's official website. Click here to view the latest videos from OA's YouTube channel. Click here to join OA's Facebook Group.