What could officials of FC Barcelona be doing in the slums of Vikaspuri in West Delhi? Or, why would England’s West Brom FC be sending signed jerseys to the kids here? The answers can be had at My Angels Academy, a club that employs football as a means of rehabilitating and empowering underprivileged kids.
With more than 150 members now, the club has been able to provide a new lease of life to many of these kids — some of whom have managed to represent India both nationally and internationally. They have won matches against top professional clubs of Goa; won tournaments such as the one sponsored by Manchester United in Delhi in 2013 and the World Football Indoor Tournament, 2014; and been the plate champions in under-13 and under-15 categories of Delhi Youth League, 2015.
Behind the success of these kids is Sylvester Peter, a man with single-minded focus on ways to better the life of slum kids. In his late forties now, Sylvester’s journey began in school when he helped out his less-privileged friends — be it with a shirt, a pen, or anything that the other needed and he could provide. On certain days, he would play football with his slum friends, and soon realised that a good game of football worked wonders in forging lasting bonds. He strongly felt that he needed to somehow combine his philanthropic passion with sports to achieve the results he wanted. And My Angel Academy was born in the late 1980s.
The academy, operating from a small rented room in a slum, has achieved what many elite international schools aspire for. In fact, MBA institutes such as IIM Lucknow and FMS Delhi have done case studies on it.
Sylvester, with visible pride in his eyes, says, “My academy is just a small rented room in a slum, but it has changed the mindset of the children here. They are now keen to achieve goals, and they are setting fantastic examples. One of my boys, Mohammad Tanjeer — once a drug addict — is now completely rehabilitated and has been selected for Liverpool Academy of Pune. Two more have been selected in the French club FC Metz for training. These kids have won against international soccer academies such as Arsenal and Barcelona.”
Sylester Peter celebrates a win with his football team
Their success lies in bonding well as a team, feels Sylvester. “The children here study together and play together. At least for the time they are here, they are one happy bunch. Senior children train and teach the juniors, and that’s how the whole thing operates. Some seniors and me, who are professionally successful, contribute financially to the academy.”
Apart from academics and sports, the children are made familiar with different aspects of life such as personal hygiene, sex education and gender equality. “I use sports lessons to impart life skills — the hardship of losing, the joy of winning, team spirit, patience and anger management," Sylvester explains. "Who doesn’t enjoy kicking around a ball? So I don’t think there could have been a better way to teach my angels.”
Gender equality is one of the key lessons that Sylvester wants his academy kids to imbibe. So girls, too, are trained in football, and they have their separate team. But of course, pressure from parents and relatives often leads them to quit midway. Some are also taught classical dance. Describing the difficulties in keeping the girls at school, Sylvester says, “Yes, girls do play football, but they find it difficult to continue. Typically, parents allow a girl child to play till 6 or 7, and then the restrictions start. They are forced to carry out the chores at home, or help their mothers in their work. It can get really challenging sometimes.”
Sylvester knew early on that his journey was going to be a difficult one. He was bullied, discouraged, people called him names. He remembers, “When I took the children out to play, people would gather to stop me. It was difficult for them to accept their children and these slums kids playing in the same park. Sometimes, they would call the cops too.”
But eventually people relented; they understood his fight. The slum dwellers, too, initially found it difficult to accept this stranger who just liked kicking around the ball with the kids. Building trust took time, but it happened, says Sylvester. “I was dealing with beggars, drug addicts, ragpickers, thugs, vagabonds — they were frightened, aggressive and curious. But through constant encouragement, acceptance, counselling and, of course, sports, things changed.”
For Sylvester, the dream doesn’t end with My Angels Academy — that’s only a start, albeit a good one. He intends to travel to different parts of India to select students for his football team — and even set up branches in the country’s rural reaches.