Ravaged by civil war throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and more recently devastated by the Ebola crisis, Sierra Leone is most often associated with disaster.
However, it is also a nation of resilience. The adult literacy rate saw growth of 14% between 2004 and 2015. Yet, such changes don’t appear out of the ether.
Kitsana ‘Jimmy’ Muongsene, founder of Motivate Football Academy Australia (MFAA) has partnered with the Helping Hands Foundation to source donations of school supplies, children’s books and football gear to send to children in Sierra Leone.
“Early last year, I saw one of my friends who I grew up playing soccer with on Facebook,” Jimmy remembers. “He was in Sierra Leone coaching a soccer team, and I asked him if I could donate some of my old soccer boots, clothes there, he put me in touch with Coachie Abdul and we started from there.”
Jimmy has since been astounded by the level of support exhibited by the Canberra community.
“I have built a strong relationship with many of the players and their families,” he explains. “Giving donations to these kids and seeing them have the donations gives me a reward and happiness that money cannot replace or any coaching certificate.”
The initiative is a deeply personal matter for Jimmy. “I struggled most of my life because of my own personal mistakes,” Jimmy explains. “So one day it just clicked to me to start an academy to help low socioeconomic families and players so that they could have a professional training program.” Now Jimmy trains players for free while acting as a mentor for them in their personal lives.
Jimmy’s work speaks to the power of inclusive initiatives which seek to develop the ‘whole’ person. “My work has attracted many players from Sudan, Liberia, Nigeria and many other countries, with players who arrived as refugees, or who have been left out of football because they couldn’t afford fees.”
Consistently putting the interests of his players first, Jimmy has a robust sense of commitment. “During the first three years of building my academy, I was knocked down many times, struggling to make ends meet for my family, as I used most of our savings to keep it running.”
The devotion of his players was key to MFAA’s success.
“Some of my players have been with me for nearly four years, and have truly supported me,” he says.
Jimmy considers the donation drive a gift not only to the recipients of donations, but also to his players in Canberra. “It gives them a chance to see what happiness they bring to the kids in Sierra Leone when they donate. It teaches them that the basic things in life are important, and when they donate and see kids singing their names in celebration, they learn to appreciate everything in life they are given.”
This year with the support of 121Hair in Queanbeyan and the community, Jimmy reports that this year’s drive has seen donations triple.
Much of this year’s success is due to the efforts of Emma (14) and Zachary (12) Illijoski. Emma plays with the Canberra United under 15s and plays at a Territory and National level, while Zachary plays with the Gungahlin Premier League under 13s, and has been selected to travel to Korea in August to play in the under 12s World Championships.
“I live and breathe the game,” Emma tells us. However, soccer is not her only passion. “I’m always looking for ways to make a difference in the world, and when I heard about the fundraiser with Jimmy from MFAA, I jumped at the chance to help.”
Emma viewed the MFAA/Helping Hands collaboration as an opportunity to broaden the concerns of the Canberra community, bringing life to the nigh on clichéd phrase “Think globally, act locally.”
“I didn’t even think about it; we contacted all the families we knew from football, my school (Campbell High) and my brother’s school (Ainslie Primary),” Emma explains.
Like Jimmy, Emma has been in awe at the generosity of the Canberra community, saying “I just hope we have a big enough container to send it all over!”
However, the project hasn’t just been about the practical act of gathering donations. It has also been a lesson in gratitude and appreciating the simple joys of life.
“By no choice of their own, children in Sierra Leone are growing up in a world where they don’t have the simple things in life. Through this fundraiser, we can get these students in Sierra Leone one step closer to enjoying the things we take for granted,” says Emma.
So how can you get involved? Gather together unneeded children’s books, school supplies, and soccer gear and email firstname.lastname@example.org to organise a time to drop off your donations, or bring them over to 121 Hair in Queanbeyan.
Get your ducks (or soccer balls) in a row, because donations need to be in by the end of August!