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Our latest Story from the Field comes from Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Sameth tells Common Goal member Shinji Kagawa how his life has been transformed through coaching young kids with disabilities at the Indochina Starfish Foundation.

Stories from the Field is an ongoing series in which Young Leaders share their stories, and the challenges they have overcome, with members of the Common Goal team.

Football, be it playing or coaching kids, has completely changed my life. Not only has it given me confidence and helped me grow as a person, it has also given me a livelihood. It’s hard to imagine where I would be right now without football. My life without the game is not something I like to think about. This is the story of what football has done for me.

Here in Phnom Penh, Cambodia a lot of kids in the slums have never gone to school because of extreme poverty. As soon as the kids are old enough, they are put to work by their parents because just surviving me and the whole family has to pull together. This was especially true in my family as I had six brothers and sisters, and my parents died when I was very young. And so my siblings and I had to provide for ourselves.

We never had enough food to eat or clothes to wear because we simply didn’t have money to buy them. There was no access to clean water either. Added together, this meant that not only were we deprived of an education, but a childhood too. Given the very limited opportunities for kids like me to get an education in addition to the chronic lack of jobs, it is very hard to break the cycle of poverty in Cambodia.

I started playing football when I was quite young with my friends on the street. We never really had a pitch to play on so we’d often just play in an alleyway or a place where there weren’t too many cars. Playing football with my friends was always a distraction from everything that was going on around me. It helped me forget my problems for an hour or two.

I first discovered the Indochina Starfish Foundation (ISF) eight years ago through staff from the Songkheum Center for Children organisation based in Siem Reap. They offered a safe space for a lot of kids to play and taught the kids life skills to help them grow into happy adults. I really loved spending time participating in the ISF programme, especially working with the coaches. They were always so positive and always took the time to talk to us and listen to us, which I really appreciated.

I was delighted in 2012 when, after playing in ISF’s training programme for two years, they asked me if I wanted to become a coach myself. Becoming a coach was not easy and the training was hard work but I loved every minute of it. I finished my training and became a full-time coach. It is a position I feel honoured to have. Not only am I lucky to have a job at all , but I am also blessed to have one that I truly love.

There is one programme at ISF I find particularly rewarding as a coach which involves working with kids who have physical and learning difficulties. We work with kids who might be deaf or have HIV and have a regular tournament dedicated to players with learning disabilities and players who are hearing impaired. Many of these kids have been excluded not just from football, but also from other activities, because of their disability and the stigmas which surround them. I love seeing the look on these kids’ faces as they kick a ball or score a goal for the first time. They have been ignored and pushed away all their lives but through football they feel valued. They feel like they have achieved something and this gives them a lot of confidence.

But I have to say my most memorable experience was accompanying four of our young players to the FIFA Football Festival in Russia in 2018. I was worried about going at first because I didn’t know what to expect. But it ended up being the most amazing experience. I even got to watch the World Cup 2018 games!

I also attended workshops there which taught me about how to be a good coordinator and learn about football3. I really loved taking part in the activities run by participants from other countries. It felt as if we were one big football family. All these people from all over the world who all speak different languages came together united through football. I hope I can go back again sometime. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Playing football and coaching the kids has benefited me in so many ways. I had lots of health problems growing up because I was forced to drink dirty water and never had enough to eat but things have gotten a lot better since I started playing football. It has provided me with money to support my family and a route out of poverty. I remember when I first started at ISF and how much I used to look up to the coaches there. Now, I’m one of the coaches and a role model for the kids. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously.

In the future, I want to spread the football for good message across Cambodia to families from remote communities and deprived areas. I want to pass on everything I have learned as a coach to kids who have had to endure a childhood like mine, so that they too may become coaches in the future.

Coaches who will teach kids the joy of football and help them understand how it can be used as a powerful tool for good. Coaches who can help them stay away from destructive social activities such as drug abuse, drinking and gambling and provide a route to a healthy life.

Common Goal is uniting the football community in tackling the greatest social challenges of our time. And we can use your help. Join the team at www.common-goal.org

Stories from the Field: A Route out of Poverty was originally published in Common Goal on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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