RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Until last year, the soccer field at the top of the Morro dos Prazeres favela, in the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Santa Teresa, was used by narco-traffickers.
They didn’t go there to kick balls.
Instead, given its sweeping view of the city, they used the field to keep tabs on the favela.
But since November, the field has been home to Premier Skills, a program offered by England’s Premier League, in partnership with the Rio de Janeiro Public Safety Secretary and the British Council, the United Kingdom’s international organization for educational opportunities and cultural relations.
The installation of a Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) in the region in February 2011 paved the way for the program, which uses soccer as a tool to engage young people and develop their athletic abilities.
Premier Skills operates in 15 countries and has trained 1,000 coaches and 300,000 children and teenagers.
But the program in Brazil is unique, as the tutors are police officers, and all have physical education training.
“Premier Skills has a partnership with the police in India, but it’s only strategic,” says Ana Paula Bessa, a project manager at the British Council. “Brazil is the only country where police officers serve as coaches.”
In September and October 2011, two specialists in community sports projects came from the United Kingdom to train 30 UPP officers. Three of them are working in the Morro dos Prazeres project. The other 27 will take the field when the program is brought to other communities.
The Premier League will support the Rio project for two to three years, Bessa says.
“The idea is to look for local partners to ensure the project’s continuity with support from private institutions, for example,” she adds.
Brazil is also the only country in which the program is focused more on social inclusion than athletic training. In addition to soccer classes, the students receive civics lessons and take part in cleaning their community.
Activities are held three times a week, with a group of 300 players between 7 and 18 years old, divided into two sections.
Family is the focus
Family is the main focus of the program, according to the project’s coordinator, Sgt. Geraldo Roberto de Souza Júnior of Rio de Janeiro’s Military Police.
“It makes no difference if we talk about citizenship and don’t do anything practical for the family,” Júnior says. “One of our players might leave here and find his parents unemployed, using drugs and alcohol, which is quite common in low-income communities.”
Júnior says the program’s next step involves bringing a team from the Municipal Social Development Secretary into the community to talk with the players and find out more about the families’ needs.
“We’re trying to make partnerships with trade and industry groups in order to host a job fair and help those parents who are outside the labor market,” Júnior says.
The program brought Wesley Thomas Dionísio, 13, closer to his parents.
“They’re separated, but they come here to watch me play,” Wesley says.
“When one of them can’t come, they let me know.” Lessons in civility are also being absorbed by the participants.
“There’s no more disrespect, like kids cursing each other out,” Wesley says.
Charles Siqueira, coordinator of the program’s civics module, said the program has brought families closer.
“We’ve been able to reach the adults of the family through the children,” he said. “The lessons being learned have repercussions at home.”
Siqueira is not a police officer, but he was invited to participate because he’s been performing social work in the favela for the past 10 years. He is responsible for Galera.com, a project that uses art and technology to educate local children.
“The UPPs helped to open the community, to bring in other projects and initiatives and to give an opportunity for them to work together,” Siqueira says.
With the arrival of the UPP, the field where the program takes place changed completely. In June, with the support of Brazilian MTV, the dirt lot became a stadium with a grass playing field, locker rooms, lighting and bleachers.
MTV broadcasted its Rockgol show from the field, with beautiful views of the city in the background.
Siqueira organizes the group cleanups with the players from Premier Skills in order to prevent the spread of dengue. In 2011, the disease, which is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, infected 168,241 people and took the lives of 140 in the state of Rio de Janeiro alone.
“While it is possible for people to work collectively, they can sometimes be extremely careless in their daily lives, by littering, for example,” Siqueira says. “We stress the idea that each individual must do his part.”
Ana Lúcia Araújo da Silva, a 10-year-old who is one of six girls involved in the project, says the field was “just dirt, mud and garbage” before the project started.
On March 10, 10 children with the best combinations of on-field performance, academic standing, behavior and community service will go to the London headquarters of Premier Skills.
“As soon as we choose the participants, we have to start working on their passports. A lot of them don’t have any ID – not even a birth certificate,” Bessa says.
The multiple needs of the children in the program caught the attention of one of the program’s tutors, military police officer Geisa Silva Santos.
“It’s not just financial needs, but also educational, emotional, everything,” she says. “There are children who ask whether I want to take them home, whether they can call me ‘mom’. They wind up becoming my children.”
Another tutor, military police officer Bruno Leone, points out participants are changing as the program develops.
“In the beginning, they would try to challenge you, to show that they were superior and they were tough,” Leone says. “As time passes, the ones who seemed the angriest and most rebellious turn out to be the neediest, and they wind up calming down and becoming your best friend.”