Vaneisa: Priceless goals—where sport and youth development meet

Around dusk, a couple weeks ago, as I was leaving the Massy supermarket in St Augustine, a group of maybe six young boys—I’d guess between eight and 12—were trooping around the car park soliciting donations.

They approached me and said they were trying to raise funds for their football club. I was disturbed by their method for several reasons. Given the way they were scurrying up to vehicles, not all together, it seemed risky, our world being what it is.

A coach works with young sprinters.

Shortly, a man joined them, carrying one of those bags of assorted snacks, which had been given by a shopper. It seemed he was their handler.

I asked a lot of questions and took his name and number, promising to call to get more information because it alarmed me that a community club should be going about its business in this way.

Intending to write about this, I contacted Lasana Liburd, who runs the Wired868 website which features a tremendous amount of football information. He has been the livewire behind the Arima Araucans Academy, primarily coming out of the Arima North Secondary.

Over time, we have discussed his experiences with the youngsters, and the systems he has put in place to meet the children’s practical needs, and their technical and social development.

Arima North Secondary U-14 player McKelson Lewis (centre) makes a point to teammate Jovanni Vitalis (right) while Mikel Murray looks on during a Training Session at the Arima North Secondary School on 21 June 2022.
(Copyright Daniel Prentice/ Arima Araucans Academy)

I have always been impressed by his commitment and the extent of his efforts to try to bring more than just basics to the enterprise.

So I wanted his take on the situation I had encountered, curious to know if it was a common practice to have youngsters hustling hand-outs. Immediately, he raised a number of red flags. Although I had contacted the club and spoken with its manager, he found so many holes in her story that we agreed that it was prudent to carry out further checks on the validity of this self-styled academy.

I will probably return to it when claims have been verified. But still I want to look at this issue because it seems to me, legit or not, there is something significant from a development point of view in the plight of sporting community clubs.

Malabar Young Stars coach Yunus Abdullah (left, crouched) talks to his players during halftime of a NLCL U-19 Community Cup fixture against Trendsetter Hawks at the Eddie Hart Ground in Tacarigua on 1 May 2022.
(Copyright Daniel Prentice/ Wired868)

At one end of the spectrum, there is the Arima North football team, for which Lasana has worked tirelessly and thoughtfully—canvassing his multitude of contacts within the football and business community to get support of all kinds for the children.

At present, there are over 50 under his charge, and although from his accounts, they can be more than a handful, his voice is full of pride when he tells the stories of their growing maturity as they navigate their worlds of obstacles and challenges.

Mindful of the complexities of their straitened circumstances and prospects, he tries to provide a multitude of resources: gear, school supplies, physiotherapy, training, nutrition, even counselling.

Trinidad and Tobago Boys National Under-15 coach Densill Theobald (standing, second from left) gives a motivational talk to Arima North Secondary players at Serpentine Road, St Clair on 16 August 2022.
(Copyright Daniel Prentice/ Arima Araucans Academy)

Many of them live in little bubbles, naïve about the world outside of their immediate experience. He recalls when they were going to St Mary’s College for a pre-season game, several players had never been to St Clair and places like One Woodbrook Place and the Queen’s Park Oval.

Today, they are going by boat to Tobago for a game against Bishop’s High School and instead of making it a day trip, he was determined to raise funds to allow them to have the weekend there. They will return by plane, and for several, it will be the first airborne time.

He knows that these are valuable experiences for them—not only for the thing itself, but because it broadens their horizons, gives them a taste of something they would not have imagined for themselves.

There are many talented ones, but very few opportunities.

Arima North Secondary full back Criston “CJ” Gomez pleads for the ball during Championship Division action against El Dorado East Secondary on the Arima Old Road on Friday 16 September 2022.
(Copyright Daniel Prentice/ Wired868)

Accustomed to hardship, some either trudge along accepting it as fate, or go beyond to try to fulfil their dreams. One 18-year-old, the eldest of eight children, is so “laser-focused” on his training, that during the pandemic, he used his “passage money” for school to find his way to National Under-20 team training at the Ato Boldon Stadium.

Another talent—at 14, a very young training squad member of the national U17 team—had to stop going because he had to take about five taxis after school to get to the Stadium and he was too exhausted by the time he got there for it to be worth it.

Lasana thinks that situations like this can be ameliorated if coaches and managers could be innovative. For instance, he says, training could be rotated among stadia at different locations, which, of course would also allow players to gain experience from a variety of environments.

The Trinidad and Tobago Men’s National Under-20 Team players prepare for a practise session in January 2022.
(Copyright TTFA Media)

Buses could be hired to collect players from specific points, to alleviate the draining impact of long journeys. Those who commute, know that mental toll.

Even the Strike Squad team members were exhausted by the trip from Fyzabad to the National Stadium in their chartered maxi.

Lasana has invested a large chunk of his time, energy and resources into this project. As far as he is concerned, it is a way of helping to build community, and to nurture humans.

“We treat them with respect—we treat them professionally,” he said, expressing his distaste for having children feeling that begging for hand-outs is an appropriate way of life.

Arima North Secondary players (from left) Mark Thomas, Jemaul Ashing and Jadon Durity congratulate teammate Ricardo Jones (bottom) after his equaliser against San Juan North Secondary in East Zone Intercol semifinal action on 15 November 2022.
(Copyright Daniel Prentice/ Arima Araucans Academy)

His crew works hard to try to lift the self-esteem of their young charges, whose living conditions do not generally accommodate such elusive luxuries.

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