Six years ago, Vikas and I were working with young, impressionable children in government schools in Pune and Mumbai. As teachers, we felt accountable towards our role as educators. This meant a lot more than starting and ending our day in a classroom. We felt the need to educate in a way that let our children have fun while doing something they love. We were confident that learning would continue to co-exist either at the forefront or in the background of this.
This character building through co-curricular education was something many of us didn’t get a chance to enjoy in our school lives in India. That’s why we came back to change things around in schools that needed the most support. That was the inception of Just For Kicks.
When Vikas and I first started Just For Kicks in 2011, as educators we envisioned a world where all children played freely and enjoyed themselves. All this while developing life skills, including basic values, character, leadership skills and an understanding of themselves and their surroundings.
We chose the game of football as it was close to our hearts and we knew how to go about it. At Just For Kicks, we were working on something bold and new. We had encountered organisations working in life skills and sports, but none of them were working inside the under-resourced school system. So we coined our own model.
110 kids from 7 schools in Pune joined us in this journey called Just For Kicks. The older boys groomed the younger ones on the field in this life-skill nurturing exchange. Simultaneously, just one team in Mumbai was training hard through the year, as its players kept growing both on and off the field. Our first JFK League ended on such a high! As teachers as well as coaches, Vikas and I watched all the plans we’d drawn on paper coming to life on that green grass. That was the beginning of Just For Kicks!
Lining up the Defense
While we developed our curriculum with international technical (football) experts from Australia and the UK, we soon learnt that the ground realities would play a major part in how our program would play out. We’ve spent six years researching, partnering, trying, testing, refreshing and developing our JFK Model as it is today and we are proud of it!
Stepping up meant recruiting full-time salaried employees and committing ourselves to Just For Kicks. Everyone loved our vision, our intentions to scale and the impact we were making, but it wasn’t easy to piece this together and get the ball rolling. We kept thinking about the ‘one million children’ and ‘everyone plays’ and that took us to our biggest step – quitting our full-time jobs and starting as employees at Just For Kicks with two more team members.
Tackling the Offence
Just For Kicks served as a safe space for children to express themselves freely but we were always fighting an uphill battle either with parents, schools, governments or funders, trying to prove the equal importance of sport and fitness starting at a young age, to produce well rounded grown ups. We’ve faced the funding and expansion dilemma with schools waiting to sign on and having no paying capacity.
Potential funders would ask us to explain life skills and how we would measure them or why, according to us it was more important than basic needs like food, water, shelter. We’ve been asked to justify our choice of football over every other sport too. It has been a chicken and egg dilemma trying to answer questions on scale and sustainability when we were only starting out.
But seeing has been believing. The same funders who loved our idea but hesitated to back us early on, now actively reach out to us.
When none of these were an issue, gender became the issue.
How can girls play?
How can girls wear shorts or sports gear?
How can girls play with boys or be coached by men?
Why should girls and boys play when they have home chores and school work that they can’t even manage?
But again, we were very fortunate to consistently combat these battles and change mindsets over time.
The Shots and the Goals
In 2016, three of our children had their passports made and boarded their first ever flight all the way to London, to train at Crystal Palace FC (English Premier League club). This entire experience was a first for each one of these three and their families. The footballers returned home with lessons from world class experts. Then in 2017, our 12-year-old Mumbai goalkeeper headed to Russia to play with other footballers his age from 63 countries and addressed an audience of around 1,200 people from the sporting world. These moments in his life will most probably define his personality.
The impact stories of our young girls taking charge of their own lives to turn them around and empowering other girls to lead healthy lives as equals with the boys at school, young entrepreneurs graduating from the JFK program to start their own mini JFK academies, footballers representing India at international events because of their sportsmanship, have been a part of this journey so far.
Keeping up the Dribble
Vikas and my first-hand experiences as teachers, coaches and team managers left us with a wealth of lessons to keep building the project. Our passion project had given us just as much as it had given our children. The change of heart in many schools towards our model, backing from friends and small funders, and this proof of concept drove us to set up Just For Kicks as a full-fledged organisation to reach at least a million children who could learn while playing!
Today, with the support of 14 team-mates and close to 100 coaches, we work with 3,000 children across 101 schools in Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Pune, including a rural program in partnership with Enabling Leadership Foundation in Dharwad. We’ve gone from no girls to nearly 50% girls in our program and we’re even more charged to chase bigger dreams. Come 2018, we are ready to enter new cities, towns and villages so that more children have access to life skills through sport.
As for me, I’ve spent nearly a decade pondering about changing the education system in India through creative mediums. Just For Kicks with all its extreme craziness has allowed me to put my thoughts into action. It’s a way of life and I wouldn’t have it any other way.