From getting low-income schools to play on the same pitch as elite schools, to partnering with an English Premier League Club, Neha and Vikas, the founders of Just For Kicks, have indeed come a long way in providing equal opportunity to all kids through sports.
It is the concluding day of the School Football Championship 2016 – one of the biggest 2-month long inter-school football tournaments in India with 225 teams representing a mix of low-income government and private schools as well as elite international schools from Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Hyderabad. I am welcomed by cheering crowds and screaming coaches as I make my way towards Neha Sahu – Teach For India Alumnus & Co-Founder, Just For Kicks – who is emceeing for the event and lining-up the participating team from Shindewadi Municipal Public School – Shindewadi Superheroes!
“A lot of what I have accomplished is attributed to the kids I taught in Shindewadi during the 2 years of my Fellowship and everything that they taught me in return,” she comments with a smile as the walkie-talkie in her hand crackles.
Neha graduated in 2010 from New York University with a BSc in Psychology and a minor in Media & Communication. After having experienced inequity in its various forms through volunteer work with low-income African and Hispanic communities during her 2nd year, she felt compelled to come back to Mumbai and decided to apply for the Teach For India Fellowship in 2010.
“My first two months were spent just getting the 47 2nd graders to sit down on their benches. It was only after a year that I felt like I was creating milestones with my kids,” she reminisces.
Neha’s day as a Fellow would start at 9 am and go by aligning extra-curricular activities with academic rigour in order to achieve the vision for a holistic education.
“We did not have free resources to realize this vision and that’s what enabled up to secure partnerships with other organisations.”
It was in 2011 that Neha co-founded Just For Kicks – an initiative that provided kids from low-income schools a platform to play football and apply learnings from the experience to academics.
“Just For Kicks happened very organically because Shindewadi is a football hub in Bombay. Our 6th grade team could easily take on kids 4-5 years older than them. Kids who would refuse to attend class would never skip football so I started teaching them Math and English using the rules and principles of the game and at the same time recruited volunteers to aid their sport training. The idea was to use the sport to develop essential life skills and academics in children who were not doing well academically,” she says.
While Neha was paving the path to form a solid team, other Teach For India Fellows in Pune were simultaneously building a project to facilitate leadership skills through sports.
“We came together because of our shared belief and it eventually led to the creation of 14 football teams that participated in our first league match in Pune. While driving back, after my Shindewadi team having performed so well there, I remember thinking to myself that I’ll have to continue with Just For Kicks!”
Neha, along with co-founder & also Teach For India Alumni Vikas Plakkot continued to work on Just For Kicks even as their Fellowship came to an end.
“We evolved by learning from sport curriculums in different universities across the world and then progressed to creating our own curriculum, hiring our own coaches and also having an app to record player feedback and attendance.”
JFK became a registered NGO in 2015 and today – 5 years after they started – there are over 160 participating teams from both Teach For India as well as other miscellaneous low-income private and government schools.
JFK also offers in-school training programmes which have been implemented by 60 schools and are impacting 1600 children across Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Hyderabad!
When asked about the most challenging stakeholders to the JFK journey, Neha exclaims, “Definitely school management! Most schools in India view sports as an added curriculum and have very few resources or sports equipment to supplement it. There is usually just one Physical Trainer a school who takes up activities like jumping jacks and spoon and lemon race, etc. Very few understand how fruitful sport can be when teaching values such as leadership, discipline, team work and even coping with academics. Fortunately our school retention rate is excellent because within one year, the kids were displaying better behaviour in class, showing more confidence and dealing with loss in a disciplined way – the schools couldn’t help but take notice!”
Football has gained tremendous popularity in India, especially with the India Super league which was viewed by 429 million viewers last season – two and a half times that of FIFA World Cup 2014.
Just For Kicks definitely aims to capitalize on the growing popularity of the sport.
“Vikas and I are passionate about getting everyone to play irrespective of their social or economic background and want Just for Kicks and the School Football Championship to grow exponentially every year. We are also seriously committed to putting up a national girls’ team one day and are collaborating with a for-profit organisation called Soccer Connections to provide training and coaching. I personally feel there is more raw talent in the low-income communities of India and that these kids deserve to receive the same skills and training as anyone else,” Neha mentions.
From getting low-income schools to play on the same pitch as the elite schools to partnering with an English Premier League Club and even having ex-Manchester United player Louis Saha distribute prizes at the closing ceremony of SFC – Neha has indeed come a long way.
Talent can be found in the most unexpected of places with no reverence for socio-economic class and with organisations like Just For Kicks gaining momentum, the possibilities for children of our nation can be limitless!