How football (and chocolate brownies) are changing lives in Colombia

ChildrenPoor Communities

Young footballers at Club Deportivo wear kits that say ‘Jesus is Lord’ on the back. Photo: Club Deportivo

Young people and adolescents from disadvantaged areas of the city of Medellín in Colombia are exposed to many risks. These include enrolment into illegal armed groups, injury, death, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and natural disasters. In the late 1980s Medellín was the murder capital of the world with around 20 young men being killed there a day.

Since 1989, Club Deportivo – a Christian non-governmental organisation officially known as the Christian Union Sports Club (CUSC) - has worked with children and young people from some of the most dis­advantaged areas of Medellín.

Through sport and recreation (principally football), psycho­­logical and academic support, mentoring and a con­stant pro­motion of Biblical principles these young people are offered an alter­native to violence and delinquency and are helped to resolve their con­flicts in more approp­riate ways.

Reaching children

Football is an effective way into the lives of young people. They are much more likely to attend a sporting event than a workshop or seminar. Because of the cultural importance of football, Club Deportivo has never had any problems gaining the acceptance, attention and respect of young people, their families, the state and community organisations. Over the years some of the players have gone on to become leaders, trainers and evangelists in their own neighbourhoods.

Club Deportivo promotes equal rights for men and women. As a result, in the neighbour­hoods in which they work women are now given more respect, par­ticularly when they are using public facilities such as football grounds and taking part in organised sporting events.

Many of the organisation’s staff live in the same neighbourhoods as the bene­ficiaries – some used to be beneficiaries themselves – which ensures a constant presence and deep understanding of local needs and issues.

Football, though, is not the only way that the founder of Club Deportivo, Mark Wittig, reaches out to the community. In 1994 he started a small chocolate brownie business from his home as a way to provide employment to young men keen to escape a life of crime. The brownie business now has its own factory, generating employment for 28 families and providing 50 per cent of the overall budget for CUSC.

Watch a video about the coaches at Club Deportivo

Faith in action

Experienced sports coaches and evangelists run football training sessions, games and tournaments. There are opportunities for young people to go on recreational camps and attend ‘cultural peace afternoons’ where they can enjoy table games, live music and other entertainment. Each event includes times of prayer and short evangelistic talks.

Relationship building and one-to-one mentoring are central to the project, along with home visits. A teacher helps the children achieve better marks at school; a psychologist helps them with any other issues, such as recuperation from trau­matic experiences. While local church leaders are also involved on a voluntary basis.

During training sessions the following topics are covered: conflict resolution, the con­sequences of breaking the law, domes­tic vio­lence, political actions avail­able to civil society, disaster pre­ven­­­tion, gender equity, sexual and repro­ductive health, HIV, integral mission and restora­tive justice.

Club milestones

In 1986 Wittig and his friends set up a mini football tournament in Robledo Palenque, Medellin, as a way to share the Gospel with young men who were being recruited into a life of violence and crime spawned by the Medellín Drug Cartel. Since then the club has moved from a football field that used to be a dumping ground (for both trash and dead bodies) to a five-acre site in Bello, in the north of the city.

Blessed by donations and funding from the successful brownie business, “la Primavera” sports centre includes a stadium for 2,000 spectators, three football fields, dressings rooms, offices and a retreat centre. While a church community centre is due to be finished this year in Andalucía, a low socio-economic area of the city.

After nearly three decades of ministry, CUSC now has 40 coaches, over 3,000 children and youths represented by 130 football teams from 24 areas of greater metropolitan Medellín.

This blog post has been amended from an article in issue 81 of Footsteps  magazine. You can read Footsteps online, sign up to receive Footsteps regularly or contact us to order printed copies.

For more information on Club Deportivo and its activities:

April 6 is the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace

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