Adventures, Races, Kit and Life
There is no doubt that completing an event like the Atacama Crossing – 7 marathons in seven days, self-supported across the world’s most arid desert, gives one a huge sense of satisfaction. However it doesn’t really compare to the feeling of contentment and personal fulfillment that I got from helping those who were significantly less fortunate than myself.
My most rewarding experience to date, was the close involvement with 42 incredible orphans from Mahamek Boys Home. I had the privilege of being given the task of training them to play rugby ( a sport I love ) and to speak basic English. It was even more satisfying to be able to go one step further and develop relationships with other charitable organisations that would support these orphans in the future too.
When my CEO asked me if I would take on this challenge I had no concept of how difficult and on occasions, frustrating it would be, or how eager I would become to commit my time and energy to these kids! Youngsters with nothing material in life, battered and bruised from a very young age, yet still capable of dreaming of an incredible future. Overall it is fantastic to know that I’ve made a genuine difference to the Mahamek Tigers.
The climax of the challenge would be a tournament in the UK where under privileged children from all over the world would come together to play rugby. This tournament was co-ordinated by a pro-active British charity, “Touraid”.
Touraid aims to use the discipline associated with sports to help provide unfortunate children with an understanding of the opportunities that exist out there in the world. Hopefully they help them and those around them to focus their energy and work hard to take control of their lives from the early years.
My company forked out and sponsored the Thailand Team, providing funding to get the team of 12 lads to the UK, and also financial support for them whilst they were there. Once there, the lads were hosted by local families, and succeeded in capturing the hearts of many of their hosts. There was also a small budget to help five intensive months of training the kids in Asia.
I was the man on the ground in Asia (despite living in a different country) and my mission was to ensure that a team of 12 lads were able to compete in a rugby tournament in the UK, against kids from a variety of countries and including British kids that had been playing full-contact rugby for the past four years. In addition they needed to be able to communicate during their stay, so they needed to be capable of speaking English at a basic level.
I involved the company’s Thailand team, as well as pretty much all the other contacts I had in Thailand, that I could entice, in order to try to deliver the maximum impact.
After our initial visit to the Mahamek Boys Home we were instantly touched and inspired by the positive attitude and incredible energy of these kids. It was fantastic the way they enthusiastically embraced us (huge, scary foreigners ) and were massively motivated to get involved and probably “play” with these big lads..
The kids, aged from 6 years old through to 16, come from a variety of backgrounds ranging from abandoned and abused ( in the worst possible ways) to those that still have parents but the parents are unable or incapable of supporting them. Ultimately it’s a government Home that provides the bare minimum and is run with the degree of military precision that is probably required when you have 42 young lads living together in close quarters.
As a team we decided that we would maximise the impact of this initiative and invest the extra time, effort and cost [if needed] to train all 42 boys, the whole The Boys Home, to the highest level we could, in both rugby and English.
Of course there were challenges, many of them. An early and painful introduction was the huge amount of administration required to simply get regular access to the boys. Tens of letters needed to be written to the Thai Government to even get the “Go”.
Then the language. Learning English was particularly demanding for the lads as the Thai alphabet and even the phonics are completely different. To help tackle this we managed to forge relationships with a Christian charity called Ark (there was no religious agenda), who were able to provide fantastic learning resources. As long as we covered the cost they were willing to send in young foreign gap year students twice a week to help with the English training. This was incredibly lucky and without it we would not have made anywhere near the progress we did. I was particularly impressed that the learning style was all about motivation and avoiding any form of punishment. Many of these kids had been punished enough in their life and therefore, needed to see the positive side of learning, so this was absolutely perfect.
From the rugby perspective we were also very lucky that the government sports’ teacher who visited several times a week had a basic understanding of rugby. This was quite unique as in Thailand only the private schools have the money to maintain the grass pitches in hot conditions. “Khun Super Chai”, did the hard graft and made sure the lads were in good shape. As we developed basic drills, he would ensure that they were practised on a daily basis for the following two weeks, so that when we came back again we were able to take the training to the next step. Khun Super Chai went one step further and even joined the English classes in order to set an example to the lads on the importance of the academic side.
Another success, was that we also managed to link up The Mahamek Tigers to The Nak Suu Tigers ( another charity also focused on using rugby to help underprivileged children). This charity had been up and running for some time and had a basic structure to it. By providing buses and packed lunches we were able to take the boys out to train with the Nak Suu Tigers twice a week and therefore, fully benefit from the coaching and guidance offered by the experienced Kiwi rugby coaches, working for the charity. They were helpful on the rugby pitch and great with the kids. This new relationship made a huge difference to the youngsters’ broader understanding of the dynamics of the game. The teams were able to train with each other, accelerating the development of both of them. It was also an important link helping to forge the long-term development of the boys after we had played our part. I’m pleased to say that this relationship is still in place.
Another important part of the ground work was kit. I managed to get last season’s kit donated by one of the Hong Kong junior teams called “Sandy Bay”, so that the lads had a set of playing kit. In addition we had been enthusiastically scrounging kit wherever we could, and every trip from Hong Kong my luggage would be jam packed full of donated kit and boots for the lads. By the end of the training we had not only equipped The Mahamek Tigers but also The Nak Suu Tigers as well, which was a fantastic achievement due to generosity that we really, really appreciated.
The first big test of progress was the famous “Bangkok Tens” children’s tournament in March. It was The Tigers first properly refereed game and a baptism of fire. They did really well considering. More importantly it was their first step in understanding how a tournament operated. They had a huge amount of fun and returned home beaming! The lads looked quite professional as they lined up for the photo in their donated Sandy Bay kit.
As the older lads played rugby the younger lads took advantage of a well organised event and supported by the SDG Bangkok team got involved in some hard-core colouring and face painting in the kids’ entertainment zone. It was an incredible day for the lads who were absolutely over the moon. They had never done anything like this before. They gave it everything. I’m sure they slept like babies that night! It was also magical for everyone who was helping out!
With every visit to the Home we were rewarded with the same incredible energy and enthusiasm. It was empowering and almost addictive !
There is a broad range of individual characters in the Home, which you would expect considering the lads unfortunate backgrounds. It was lovely to see some of the individuals almost shine with ambition during the games, and also their clear passion and commitment which they focused on ensuring that they worked their hardest, both on and off the pitch.
Selecting the team from such a great group of kids was very difficult! The emphasis was on both rugby, and also the more academic ability to learn a foreign language. The more the boys put into this, the more they would get out, during training and hopefully in life generally.So the boys who progressed the best in both sports and academic learning would have the highest chance of selection.
My mum was drafted in from a holiday to Bangkok to spend 4 hours in the heat, interviewing Thai orphans, to see how their English had progressed! My dad was equally involved with his pencil, clip board and whistle, making notes on the merits of the rugby talent, as we ran through a series of training drills, and mini games on the small grassy area in the Boys Home. After a tough day we finally managed to whittle down the numbers from 42 to 12 potentials.
Unfortunately one of the 12, and probably the most academically gifted, vanished before the trip. It was a tough reminder of the hard lives that surrounded the boys. We were told that the boy’s parents had demanded that he left the Home to work, but it was not very convincing and we suspected something more sinister. We felt helpless as there was nothing at all that we could do.
One of unexpected complexities of the selection had been the small size of the lads. These boys live on US$1 per day and do not have the luxury of eating as much as they would like. The average British 13 year old boy weighs about 50kgs, whereas these lads were closer or 30kg. Normally this would not be an issue but in a physical game like rugby, it needed to be considered. That being said, I was positive that the speed and agility of the lads would make them fun to watch when they finally played the big game.
After an incredible five months we have achieved so much. The final hurdle was getting passports for orphans with no birth certificates. This proved to be a particularly massive hurdle. We used all our links and connections with the Thai Government and after an enormous amount of effort (and a ridiculous number of letters) we finally managed to get the passports through just in the nick of time, the afternoon before the kids would you fly! Phew !
All the individual efforts paid off and everything fell into place perfectly. There was a huge amount of excitement in the Boys Home, as the 12 kids boarded the bus and headed off to the airport for their first flight ever, soon to be followed by an even bigger experience that none of them could possibly have imagined would happen.
After three days in the UK, where the lads visited local schools and iconic sites, such as Anfield Stadium ( they all knew of Liverpool ), it was time for the tournament. The Tigers embraced the tournament like fish in water.
At the beginning, the Tigers were a little intimidated by both the size of their opponents and how long the opposition had been playing for – the Tigers had been playing for just five months, whereas opposition had been playing for more than four years. After only a few minutes on the pitch, their sense of intimidation was swept away and they were playing with confidence, scoring tries and lots of them, tackling the much larger players and even showing “Daredevil” flare . The crowd were united in their opinion of the boys’ performance and struggled to believe they have only been playing rugby for such a short period of time. It was incredible!
The boys, looking small as they unite to take on a 14 year old Brit ( a forward I think ! )
The Mahamek Tigers made it to the semi-finals and their performance was outstanding! Overall it was a life changing experience for the boys. The variety of warm up events and experiences, the strong bonds that they forged with the host families and of course the climax, the rugby tournament, will never be forgotten.
Rugby has now become an important part of the Mahamek Boys Home. They still train twice a week with the Nak Suu Tigers. Unfortunately “Khun Super Chai” ( shown below on the far left, with the boys in the UK ) has since passed away and I would like to dedicate this article to him and all the time he committed and also for his patience with the crazy foreigners and their odd ways.