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Nurturing Hope

The shoe fits

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The simple idea of 'providing every deserving kid in need with the gear to play' is taking shape on the beaches of Mumbai

What started as a small news item to garner support is now a full-fledged mission to arm underprivileged kids with sporting gear which will help them realise their dreams. Project Play is all about nurturing hope...

It is 6 o'clock on a Sunday morning uncharacteristically cold for Mumbai. But shrugging off the 'brrr. . . ', it is business as usual at the Silver beach near Juhu. Sleep-smeared faces of joggers, power walkers, dog trainers crowd the space as much as the hum-ho from the fishermen and their boats. As the first rays of sun draw lazy shadows across the unyielding, frozen sand, a bunch of animated shouts and cries catch your attention. The excitement can be traced to a motley crew of boys busy in a curious game of football - the only one - on an otherwise seemingly pro-cricket beach.

While one half of the boys wears a range of jerseys from Manchester United's gingham and Real Madrid's emblem on white to Mumbai FC's blue, the other half - in somewhat blatant disregard to the weather - does without any. Team division, you guess. And then a few sharp notes from a whistle tell you it is not your everyday game onf footie that these kids have dragged themselves out on a Sunday morning for.

For nearly a year now, these kids from Juhu Koliwada have devoted every holiday - summer vacations and the Sabbath alike - to be a part of these training sessions that have seen coaches from India and abroad come and help them with the game. Their motive, the dream to do something bigger than their surroundings. Their hope - Project Play.

An initiative started by two sports journalists, Project Play worked on the simple idea of 'providing every deserving kid in need with the gear to play'. Their work as sports journalists had taken friends and former colleagues Shail Desai and Kunaal Majgaonkar to the local maidaans where every day they met scores of talented kids with the will to play and without the right resources. While they put their pen to good use, it wasn't long before they realized a two-bit article in a news daily will not help change things in the long run. So instead of resorting to masked appeals through their writing or blaming the lack of help from authorities, the duo decided to do the next best thing - do it themselves. That was back in 2010.

The first step was putting a few drop boxes at stores and eateries across the city - asking for worn out sport gear to be mended and handed over to the kids in need. The response overshot their humble expectations. Flooded with sackful of gear - old and new - the two knew they had touched a chord with many. However, the ball had just begun to roll. Joined by Jigna Padhiar, an arts professional, Shreya Bhandary, an education correspondent and Gautam Ruparel, a freelance photographer, Project Play took its aspiration to the next level.

"The overwhelming response we got made us believe that we were on the right track. We decided that Project Play was going to be about making gear and training accessible to talented children who cannot afford it, " says 27-year-old Desai.

And in what could only be alluded to serendipity, he spotted this group of boys playing football on the beach during his morning jog. "I found this bunch of 10-12 on the beach and asked them if they would love to play football. Before we knew it we had 35 kids coming every day during the summer vacations. We had turned up with just two footballs, not expecting such a big number. Soon we got more gear, training equipment, " adds Desai, who got himself a training license to conduct sessions in keeping with PP's DIY way.

While they conduct most of the sessions, there is always help at hand. Former and current players and coaches have been a regular part of the training sessions. Last year, Gary D'Souza, a coach with Arsenal Soccer School in Dubai, spent his entire summer break training the kids six days a week. "We recently tied up with city I-League club Mumbai FC. They send players over to interact with and train our kids, " adds Majgaonkar, who conducts sessions and handles the fundraisingalong with Desai.

Having been trained for a year now, it seems like the right time to test the waters and assess the kids. "There are a few boys who are really talented, and we are making plans to send them to a few regional tournaments where they don't require school teams, " says Desai. "It would do them good to see where they stand and how much they need to improve. "

Leaving aside football, which is their area of expertise, they have also got kids enrolled in good coaching academies catering to other sport like hockey. Some of these kids have also been invited by the better known academies in the city to participate in camps where international coaches hold sessions.

"We have got three girls who are training in athletics. Weekdays they train in Lokhandwala with coach Firoze Ustad and weekends on the beach, " says Bhandary who explains how each member juggles the responsibility of picking up the girls from their homes for training and then dropping them back. Though packing in two hours of sleep between office work and Project Play work seems too tedious, the eager morning faces of the kids keeps them going.

"We are not trying to mould them into champions. That would be too ambitious at the moment, " says Desai. "We are simply giving them an opportunity to make the best of their talent and time. "

In keeping with that thought and motto, Project Play recently adopted the hockey team of Our Lady of Dolours which is coached by Merzaban 'Bawa' Patel who has been the hand behind many an Olympian. They picked four best players and got former India skipper Viren Rasquinha to hand them swanky sticks and shoes from Jalandhar. "The smiles on their faces were priceless, " remembers Majgaonkar. However, there is a price, because every priceless and every noble thought needs a fat cheque book.

Mostly broke, PP resorted to Facebook to reach across to helping hands. Fundraising through social networking sites and collaborating with friends and acquaintances have kept them going till now. "We get people from all across the country and from outside too connecting with us, asking how they could help, or wanting to take PP to a new city, " says Majgaonkar who credits their Facebook page for getting them help when they most needed it. "It's amazing how many people come up to help once they know about it. "
It was during their first ever tournament called Kick-Stars last month that these voices on the virtual platform turned up with real faces. Eager to help, volunteers and peers from the media thronged Karnataka ground as they put together a successful day-long football jamboree where 10 NGOs supporting sport were invited to compete. While it might have just been a first attempt, the tournament went on to show that the modest dream that started with just two at Azad maidan had finally started taking a firm shape.

The new year has brought in bigger resolutions with it. A number of enthusiasts from various cities have shown inclination to start PP in their respective cities. "Delhi and Chennai could soon be on the radar. We even had someone create and place a drop box at a cafe in Goa. And these are all people we have never even met, " says Majgaonkar, adding, "Over these two years we've gone on believing that some of our children can make it to the big stage and we are around to give them the chance, the push they need. "
Through this journey, the five-member team has forged friendships for a lifetime while facing dead-ends, crushing deadlines, demanding routines, fights and disagreements and empty pockets. But through it all, they have kept alive the single-minded dream of helping a kid play. And while they might need to tackle bigger challenges every passing day, what matters at the end of the day is keeping that dream alive. After all, every great dream begins with a dreamer. . . and maybe an old shoe.

THE PROJECT


Thirty five children at Mumbai's Juhu centre who train in football. These kids are from families of local fishermen. Adopted the Worli Sea Face Municipal School where 20 children get professional football training along with football gear through the year. Three girls between the age group of 8 and 14 yrs have enrolled into pro-athletics training schools where they train five days a week. PP takes care of their gear and nutrition. Support to champion school hockey side at Our Lady of Dolours School (India international Yuvraj Walmiki's school) with the best kids available. Project Play would have two more established centres in Delhi and Chennai by the end of 2013. Tied up with I-League club, Mumbai FC, in a deal that involves players coming to train the children. PP conducts sports gear collection and distribution drives throughout the year.

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