What an unbelievable start to the adventure!...
It feels just like yesterday I was at London Heathrow Airport about to embark on this journey. It has evolved more than we ever thought it would. Here's a brief synopsis of the first leg of the adventure:
As the Head of Club Coaching at Team Bath Tennis (University of Bath) for over 4 years, the world travel based adventure idea came to me. We had been running a fun internal competition called the Mini Tennis World Tour (MTWT) where the children to put what they have learnt in the programme into practice - and it sparked - why could we not deliver something similar around the world to deprived communities, schools and orphanages?...
But it needed something more... Something to ensure that the children could continue to play after we visit... to make it more sustainable.
This is where Zsig Sports, a professional sports equipment manufacturer, came in (picture above). They had heard about the idea and instantly wanted to be involved. Zsig committed to donating and shipping out tennis equipment packs to all the places that we visit so the children can continue to play after we leave.
Before I knew it I had booked a one way ticket to Rio De Janeiro with friend Lee Escott, who would join us for the first leg of the adventure through South America to help with the project.
The original plan was to use the first few months to research whether the idea would work or not... but it soon became clear, during the first stop (an unexpected stop over in Rome due to a delayed flight) that the project would work as we travelled and let the idea evolve naturally.
The next stop was Rio, Brazil where we stayed in Babilonia Hostel, based in a favela. This was a shock to the system. Here we saw groups of children playing in a deprived community area with just a stick in a street patrolled with armed police. Apparently there had been a stand-off between a local gang and the police two weeks before our arrival... Time to get some tennis in!
Discussing the project with the hostel owners Bianca and Eduardo they were immediately keen to help, mentioning it was just what their community needed at that moment in time. I looked for a mini tennis net in Brasil online but the only thing available was a net for US$800... insane, just no clear access to tennis equipment.
We therefore had to adapt, we found a chain barrier fence, a bat & ball and set up a makeshift court in a sports cage around the corner. It didn't take long for the local children to start to pay attention to what was going on, and before we knew it we were playing and delivering tennis to a local group of children. One particularly keen child was Darlan (pictured above), apparently famous for being on one of the Rio Olympic billboard adverts locally.
As we left Rio, Bianca gave us a rolled-up mosquito net for us to use at our next stop as a temporary net, and wished us luck on the next leg of the adventure.
We had a brief stop in Argentina, picking up a cheap plastic 'Made in China' racquet set and an Angry Birds large bounce ball in Salta (close to the Bolivian boarder). We continued across the boarder to Tupiza, Bolivia and into the salt flats where we experienced a new level of poverty. Here I was struck by the number of unmaintained play areas for the children in the villages and the lack of any sport equipment.
Once at the far end of the salt flats in Uyuni I played tennis with local man Raul on the reflective salt flat surface which made for some great photos (pictured below, with adapted mosquito net). He agreed to act as our main ambassador to ensure that the equipment packs make it to the local communities in the Tupiza area.
Now realising the clear need for the project, I organised for an individual Zsig sports kit to be shipped over to Lima, Peru. This was no easy task...
It started well, with the package arriving in Peru within 72 hours of being sent. Amazing!... But within the package was a travel guide containing maps, and apparently they do not allow maps of Peru to be shipped into Peru?!... This was my first taste of South America's organised chaos.
After three visits in as many days, equalling a total of 12 hours, I was interrogated in a white cell in customs over the travel guide/map and equipment in the package. The package, and I, were eventually released and without financial charge (pictured above).
The 3 meter Zsig net, two racquets and balls were ingeniously packed inside a soft guitar case (thanks Mum and Dad!) (pictured above). This helped me fit nicely into the image of the stereotypical South American traveller, with the guitar case swung over our shoulder. I can't deny that I have enjoyed being asked multiple times as to whether we 'play' (assuming we are well travelled guitarists) to which we reply 'yes, fancy a game?' I then unzip the case and reveal the tennis kit to their surprise. Many amusing times have been had.
Now armed with the Zsig net and equipment we continued into Ecuador and met, friend-of-a-friend, Paola, a teacher in a local primary school who loved the idea tennis in her school. She therefore invited us into their playground to deliver the first of our official tennis sessions (Poala pictured above, left). What a great few days! The children loved the little games and the 4-7 year olds will thrive with their new kit when it arrives. A parent even paid for our taxi home on one of the days out of appreciation - with her child coming home so excited about their new sport.
Off the back of the first school visit we walked into a local orphanage, and had a very open friendly reception. By this point I had picked up a very very basic level of Spanish, having to do most of our communication through a type of charades/demoing that, unknown to both parties, somehow worked. The children were incredible... crowding round the guitar case with such an incredible level of excitement and intrigue - this excitement continued through the session and we cannot remember a more rewarding session of tennis we have delivered. This one session extended into a whole weeks worth of visits - an incredible place.
Almost every day the mother of the orphanage Fatima (pictured above), who founded the home 25 years ago, was brought to tears with appreciation and a love in her eyes. An incredible person who has dedicated so much of her life to these children. We even had a 26 year old female assistant, who we discovered had started at the orphanage herself when she was just a one year old. Referring to Fatima only as Mum. Inspiring.
The tennis kit when it arrives in the near future will be amazingly well used... In fact I can't see the children putting the tennis racquets down as we had to almost prize them out of their hands each day. Leaving with many hugs from our new little friends.
Next stop was a town called Banos we visited a larger primary school (pictured above). But to our amazement, like all our visits before, none of them had even seen tennis before, let alone played it. Each session we delivered, more and more children gathered on the school balcony overlooking the playground... If only we had more time, we would have loved to have been able to have delivered to them all. The teachers watched with intrigue and explained how they are looking forward to being able to deliver the tennis themselves to the children across the school (even the secondary school children with some touchtennis).
Now crossing the boarder into Colombia, we got to the large town of Santa Marta where we researched and visited Pastor James and his son Matthew (pictured above; Matthew, Lee, James, Matt). James looks after a schooled orphanage and they welcomed us into their family instantly, inviting us to eat and drink with them as one of their own. During our stay, the language barrier was strong, and after (what I had thought) to agreeing to delivering two sessions on our first day, we ended up delivering eight tennis sessions over four exhausting hours in the blistering heat of midday sun. But well worth it.
The enthusiasm and fun the children brought to the session kept us going (pictured above). On leaving at the end of the week, James and the teachers thanked us with embracing hugs and were ecstatic to hear that they will be receiving a tennis kit of their own to continue to play. We were taken out for a vegetarian lunch with the family (especially for veggie Lee) and James even explained how the organisation may now look raise money to tarmac their play area in readiness for the tennis kit's arrival.
Through South America we have travelled through 6 countries, delivered 30 sessions to 280 children. A massive thank you to Zsig Sports, who will help over 900 children to have access to tennis with the new equipment due to be shipped out this year.
The highlight of the schools has been the reaction of the children and how they pulled their parents/carers over to us to say hello and explain what they had done that day. At the orphanages we geared ourselves up for a big shock with the poverty, but we were incredibly overwhelmed at how welcoming everyone was, and how happy and appreciative they all were regardless of their situation. What an incredible first leg to the adventure!
So we have now made it all through South America... So what next?
Firstly we must ensure that we raise as much money as possible to add to the equipment donated by Zsig Sports. This will then be packaged, shipped and delivered to the sites throughout this year.
We are trying to raise £500 for extra funding by the 20th April 2017, and with the 'all or nothing' funding structure we must hit the target to release funds.
[Update: We successfully beat our target, and raised £711 towards the first leg of the project! Thank you to everyone who pledged. More updates coming on our social media.]
Once delivered we will follow up with the ambassadors to measure the impact, gathering photos and feedback.
Thank you for reading, and all of your support of the project. There will be more ways to donate towards the project through 2017 released in the Summer. [Update: we now have a donation page for people to pledge towards the project, and help us on the journey]