Jen's Story; Working in Sports Development

HOW VOLUNTEERING WITH SMALLER EARTH FOUND ME MY DREAM JOB

During my final year of degree study at Liverpool John Moores University, in which I was studying Criminology and Sociology, I was coming to the dreaded “dissertation deadline” and began thinking beyond my university days, what I would end up doing.

At the time, I was focusing my dissertation piece on my own research into women’s relationship with sports from childhood into adult age. I had always been someone who enjoyed keeping active and had participated in organised sports throughout my younger years in particular. I found the topic incredibly interesting to study at degree level, and I wanted to take that knowledge further and apply it into my next chapter.

I discovered “Smaller Earth” through LJMU’s Go Global funding scheme, in which the university funds a certain number of students to travel abroad to further enhance their degree study. As someone who is eager to travel and experience different parts of the world, the idea of combining the two was really appealing. Smaller Earth offers a Sport’s Development voluntary placement in Cape Town through an organisation called “African Impact”.

THE SPORTS DEVELOPMENT PLACEMENT

The placement involved assisting coaches in primary school within Khayelitsha, the second largest informal settlement in South Africa, helping instil a love of sports and keeping active to children who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it. In 1994, the physical education was removed from the curriculum denying many children in unprivileged areas to opportunity to play sports, which I was beginning to learn was the key to promoting a healthy lifestyle long term.

African Impact is the largest volunteer organisation in Africa and has various volunteer locations and projects nationwide. It is centralised in Cape Town and within the Cape Flats offers placements in Teaching, Orphan & Vulnerable Care, Girl Empowerment, Veterinary & of course, sports. I later learned through interaction with other volunteers that all the other projects were amazing, however I always knew that the sports project would be perfect for me. I was delighted with the booking process through Smaller Earth and felt as prepared as I could be with the pre departure information I had been sent through African Impact.

THE IMPACT

In June 2016 I left home for 4 weeks, which back then seemed an awfully big adventure! Every day I was in Cape Town I could feel myself grow.  It was the first period in my life when I became confident in myself, my own abilities and the choices I had and will go on to make.  I never felt so settled somewhere instantly that wasn’t home, like I did with the volunteer house. The energy was infectious and I loved spending time there. I shared the space with African Impact staff as well as volunteers from all over the world, including Liverpool (we had been in touch previously) along with other areas of England and Wales, Canada, America, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland & Romania.

Never had I had such an opportunity to interact and learn about so many different cultures, and this was one of my favourite experiences of the whole trip. We all bonded so quickly and became a little family. The bond you make with people last a lifetime, and even over a year on, I still feel this way.

Of course, the most rewarding times were at the schools in either two primary schools, situated in Langa or Khayelitsha communities. Many of the children lived in shack housing, a by-product of the terrible apartheid regime that is sadly still being felt now.

Despite the challenges they faced, the children were wonderful, happy and most importantly – they wanted to play sports! It challenged every stereotype I had naively come to associate with Africa and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt that change of mindset since volunteering with African Impact. It was wonderful to work with the coaches, as it was a real sharing of skills and equal partnership. I learned as much from then as they had from us.

In the afternoons, we visited an after school self-help project called “GAPA”. Grandmother’s Against Poverty and Aids is an incredible organisation that supports vulnerable children within Khayleitsha by providing a safe space for them after school whilst their parents are working and they are the most vulnerable. The Grannies who run the program are among some of the most amazing people I have ever come across. African Impact provides an opportunity to run games, sports and educational workshops for those children. Myself and our fellow volunteers found ourselves bringing in both our own games in combination with what the coaches had taught us - always learning something!

I had the most incredible experience in Cape Town and with African Impact. I felt passionate about their ethos as they reject all negative associations with “volunteering” generally and invest in quality experiences for both the individuals and community partners. The key focus is sustainability and the organisation’s policies and guidelines reinforce these principles, which ensure relationships are built in the most positive way with longevity for the future.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT

Those big “4 weeks” had flown by and I left Cape Town feeling like I wasn’t done by any stretch! I returned in September for 3 months, this time as a Volunteer Coordinator, in which I supported volunteers on their day to day activities on project. I was fortunate enough to be able to visit all the projects in this role, but it also meant I could return to the sports program!

At the end of the placement I was offered a year long contract from the beginning of 2017 which I am half way through currently. I have just been promoted to the Project Manager position, which means I will have more responsibility and influence within our projects going forwards, which I am so excited about. Never in a million years did I see myself being where I am today.

My advice for anyone who is considering volunteering through Smaller Earth on an African Impact project is to 100% go for it. Four weeks of volunteering lead me to move my whole life over to the most amazing city in the world, with the privilege of the most rewarding role. You never know where it could lead...