The Future Olympians: Transforming Lives Through Sports

07/30/2012 04:20 pm ET | Updated Sep 29, 2012

For the millions of children worldwide who will tune into the 2012 Olympics, they have pretty profound role models to look up to when believing that anything is possible. For many children, participating in sports is the only way out of poverty and violence and provides a glimmer of hope that they too can achieve their dreams.

In Brazil, a nation known for its rags to riches footballers, there is a growing list of iconic athletes who have beaten the odds and transformed their lives, helping many others along the way: Ronaldo, Kaká, Cafu, and Ronaldinho, the highest-paid player in the world.

Kaká, now a UN World Food Programme ambassador said, "I hope my own experience can inspire hungry children to believe they can overcome the odds and lead a normal life."

Part of what makes the Olympics so exciting is learning about these stories of personal triumph and transformation. Yet, there are many hometown heroes -- coaches and community leaders whose stories go untold in the making of these success stories.

For example, Instituto Fazer Acontecer (Make It Happen Institute) in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil is an inspirational model of community leaders who are taking a holistic approach to implementing soccer programs that give marginalized youth living in the slums a fighting chance to break the cycle of poverty and have a better future.

The Impact

At The Global Fund for Children, we are seeing this type of transformation taking place in many parts of the world. Disadvantaged children who would normally lack the opportunities and resources needed to succeed are being given a chance through savvy, local nonprofit organizations.

The impact sports programs can have on the local community is often greater than what meets the eye. Organized sports gives families hope and allows them to dream of a better future for their children. It gives them a sense of achievement, pride, and unity.

In El Retiro, Colombia, an isolated town located 30 kilometers outside Medellín, the community has suffered long periods of violence during Colombia's armed conflict and today still experiences high rates of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, and a lack of school attendance. But local innovator and hero, Iván Dario Echeverri Castaño has come up with a creative way to reach the vulnerable children in his community through a cycling organization that he started.

Iván received a bicycle when he was young and credits this event with allowing him to achieve a higher quality of life and that's why he started Corporación Correcaminos (Roadrunner Corporation).

Now our grantee partner, Corporación Correcaminos ensures that disadvantaged youth have mobility to get to school by providing them with bicycles. The organization also runs after school programs, offers recreational bike rides and employs youth in its bike repair shop, equipping them with life and job training skills.

The Biking to School program has over 800 active participants and has donated over 1,500 bicycles to rural children. Graduates of Corporación Correcaminos' Recreation and Competition program have even gone on to earn a living as professional cyclists!

In Arusha, Tanzania, our grantee partner Alfred Itaeli, director of Future Stars Academy said, "The main lesson learned through sports is that one can dare to dream. A dream that pushes children through obstacles and challenges - a self belief that I can do it if I work hard at it! Focusing on the dream minimizes the struggles of day-to-day life of living in the slums."

The Importance of Play

Most of the community leaders we partner with grew up in similar situations as the children they serve. They know firsthand what it takes to raise healthy, productive children in the midst of poverty, danger and abuse.

Though they may not have many resources at their disposal, what these incredible leaders understand is that sports equip children with the survival skills and tools they need to be happy and successful in life.

Instead of waiting for change, they are investing their time, depending on their own resourcefulness to create a lasting impact for this generation and the next. When we support their cause and help build their organization's capacity to reach more children, there truly is no limit to what they can accomplish.

Having a dream to become the next Ronaldinho is important and has its benefits. However, having access to coaches, teammates and a healthy support network allows vulnerable children to have a part of their day where they can free their minds, play, and just be kids.

Kristin Lindsey has a career spanning 25 years of community change, government service and philanthropy in Chicago, Washington, DC and globally. Prior to joining The Global Fund for Children in 2011, Kristin served as the executive vice president and COO of the Council on Foundations, a DC-based membership association of nearly 2,000 grantmaking foundations and corporations.

As CEO of The Global Fund for Children, Kristin and her team work to ensure that the world's most vulnerable children have opportunities to learn, grow and thrive. To date, GFC has invested $25 million in over 500 grassroots organizations in 78 countries, serving over 7 million children. Follow The Global Fund for Children on Twitter: @GFCnews