A 5-year-old boy named Alex* stood on the dirt patch in San Pedro, Belize, and punched a fellow soccer player. He had caused a lot of fights in the previous weeks. Katherine Lord, a volunteer with More Than Fútbol, pulled him aside. Lord had just begun running a soccer extracurricular program for The Holy Cross School, the poorest school in Ambergris Caye. She explained to him that the school would not tolerate violence at practice. She told him that he was a natural leader, so if he chose not to fight anymore, he could be team captain. In just a few weeks, Alex began helping her run drills, organize his teammates and even break up fights. For Alex, this after-school soccer program offered a safe space to play and have fun. For years, More than Fútbol has been effectively using soccer to combat poverty in Belize.
More Than Fútbol
Founded by Ali Andrzejewski in 2008, More Than Fútbol is using soccer to combat poverty in Belize. Every year, the organization sends volunteers to San Pedro, Belize for a few weeks. After these few weeks, everyone but one volunteer returns home. This volunteer runs the soccer program and teaches empowerment classes at The Holy Cross School. More Than Fútbol also works in Nicaragua.
In spring 2018, Lord volunteered to stay in San Pedro for five months. She volunteered with More Than Fútbol for four years prior to living in Belize. While there, she taught empowerment, English and math classes and ran the after-school soccer program.
Child Poverty in Belize
In Belize, 58% of children live in poverty. UNICEF estimates that 60% of children do not have access to at least one of proper drinking water, sanitation, housing, nutrition or education. One study from UNICEF found that 19% of children in Belize experience growth stunting due to poverty and 27% of schools do not have clean water.
Poverty in San Pedro, a town in Ambergris Caye, is a serious problem. Many students, like Alex, who attend The Holy Cross School do not have access to electricity or running water at home. Sewage and trash line the streets so acutely that wood boards must cover the roads so that no one steps in the waste. Despite the fact that Ambergris Caye generates about 18% of the country’s GDP from tourism, the island does not receive most of this money. This makes the residents unable to escape poverty.
The Link Between Poverty, Stress and Violence
Poverty, stress and violence all correlate. Children in poverty are seven times more likely to self-harm and become involved in violence. According to the American Psychological Association, “poorer children and teens are… at greater risk for several negative outcomes such as poor academic achievement, school dropout, abuse and neglect, behavioral and socioemotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays.” Children in poverty are more likely to have emotional or behavioral concerns such as anxiety, depression, aggression, conduct disorder, difficulty getting along with others and self-esteem issues. Children in poverty are also more likely to experience violence from a young age, which predisposes them to violent behaviors in the future. Parents living in poverty may also experience chronic stress or depression, which can cause them to parent in more severe ways, leading to worse socioemotional outcomes for children.
In Belize, estimates determined that 65% of children (ages 1-14) experience physical and psychological abuse or aggression at home. The Holy Cross School estimates that 90% of the children attending experience abuse from caregivers either physically, psychologically or sexually. Lord explained to The Borgen Project that “there’s a lot of fighting, especially among lower-income people. And it’s just because that’s how kids are treated by their parents. And it’s… I don’t want to say cultural– maybe systematic…. And so the kids would always be… fist fighting with each other and throwing rocks at each other.”
How Sports Can Reduce Stress and Fight Against Poverty
Despite the fact that the children often fought, Lord realized that soccer helped lower their aggression, improve their behaviors and their levels of happiness. Her first-hand experience influenced her to believe in the power of using soccer to combat poverty in Belize. The World Bank has found that empirically speaking, sports can help increase educational outcomes, empower players and encourage leadership. Playing sports can also alleviate anger and frustration and promote happiness.
Furthermore, sports can positively impact children’s development and goal-making. According to the University of Edinburgh, sports “matter because they are proven to boost educational capability, confidence, mental health and other learning skills that help not just education levels but working and social lives.” Sports can also benefit international development.
Lord’s experience volunteering with More Than Fútbol is unique. However, there are many other organizations working to combat poverty in Belize and other parts of the world through soccer. For example, Street Football World works to empower communities and build soccer programs and stadiums. Love Futbol finances stadiums and supports the surrounding community. The work of these organizations is invaluable because sports can help empower children emotionally and socially. Like Katherine expressed to The Borgen Project, no matter the environment the kids come from, allowing them a space to grow and feel safe and supported can positively impact their moods, behaviors and self-confidence. Overall, it is clear that using sports to combat poverty in Belize is crucial because they can change children’s lives for the better and act as a source of international development.
* Name of Alex changed for privacy
– Sophie Shippe