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ChildFund Australia has been working in Laos for close to four years and made a decision to start using sport in our work two years ago. The role of sport is often overlooked in development, but we see it as a high-quality, low-cost tool that can be used to promote child protection, rights and participation in a fun way for kids, while also providing educational and health benefits.

We’re currently teaming with Sport Matters and the Lao Rugby Federation on a project that incorporates sport and play for over 5,000 children and youth in rural Laos. The lack of appropriate play and sporting facilities and services was identified by children in the area, and is strongly linked by children and their communities with wider issues of healthy living and the negative effect of drug, tobacco and alcohol use.

The project began by introducing 52 local youths to sport and play for the first time and subsequently training them as youth leaders. Apart from learning how to lead sport and play sessions in their village, they also learned how to use sport as a tool to encourage children and young people to speak up about issues that are important to them.

The project has been particularly successful in getting girls involved in organised sport. In March, over 120 girls from 10 ChildFund-supported villages in Nonghet district gathered at a local high school for a tag rugby tournament to celebrate International Women’s Day. Coaches from the Lao Rugby Federation and local youth leaders worked together to coordinate the tournament.

Rallying under the slogans of “I am a girl, I can play!” and “I am a girl, I am strong!” in the three local languages of Lao, H`mong and Khmu, these young girls and women showed tenacity and heart in their first competition. Participants also learned valuable lessons including sportsmanship, respect for opponents, communication, teamwork and conflict resolution.

This competition marked the first time these young women had represented their villages in any type of formal sports tournament, leaving each participant and village with much to be proud of. After a long day where 10 teams competed in 25 matches, Houayzouang village took home victory!

The day drew to a close with a shared meal and awards ceremony, where each village was given materials to make a banner with their own slogan reflecting the role of sport in empowering girls and women in their villages.

The Lao Rugby Federation will soon return to Nonghet to work with youth leaders again to organise a joint tournament for boys’ and girls’ teams in celebration of Lao New Year.

Malita is a town on Mindanao Island in the Philippines, where ChildFund has been working for 28 years €“ long enough to see a remarkable change: ChildFund`s local partner in Malita is staffed almost entirely by former sponsored children!

When Maribel was a little girl, the idea of going to university seemed an unattainable dream. Her mother worked as a housekeeper to complement her father`s wages from carpentry, nowhere near enough to pay for higher education.

Maribel`s dream came closer to reality when she became sponsored through ChildFund. It was a relationship Maribel treasured throughout her childhood. “I got to stay in school, and the family hung a photo of me in their home. That made me feel really special,” Maribel, now 37, recalls.

Maribel enjoyed sponsor correspondence so much, she volunteered as a “Letter-Writing Team Leader”, helping ChildFund staff collect and distribute letters for other sponsored children in her community. Her siblings also joined her at leadership workshops. “My whole family became part of ChildFund,” Maribel says.

Though she had originally wanted to be an accountant, being part of ChildFund endeared Maribel to social work, which she pursued at university. When she graduated at the age of 22, the moment was bitter-sweet €“ she recalls feelings of joy, gratitude and hope, tinged with some sadness, as this also meant leaving the ChildFund program and her kind-hearted sponsor.

But this wasn`t to be the end of Maribel`s connection with ChildFund. After gaining several years of experience in community development work, Maribel joined ChildFund`s local partner in Malita, not far from where she grew up. ChildFund has long been working with the Malita Children`s Program (MCP), implementing projects to improve the wellbeing of children and their families, but also building the organisation`s knowledge, skills and experience so it can eventually function without ChildFund`s assistance.

Maribel is not the only former sponsored child working at MCP, she now manages a small team, including Mae and Grace, who were also sponsored children! Mae says: “Without sponsorship, I probably wouldn`t have been able to finish school, nor would I be as confident.” Grace adds that ChildFund owns a warm place in her heart. “I`m indebted to generosity,” she says.

Through sponsorship, Maribel, Mae and Grace were all able to graduate from university, which for these three young women did not seem possible. “Getting by was the goal, a higher education was just a dream,” says Maribel.

Now, these friends and colleagues feel they can repay the generosity they were shown by doing their best for the current generation of children. They see themselves as role models to the children of Malita, examples of who they too can be if they make the most of opportunities offered to them.

And there is more reason to celebrate ahead. In July, MCP will be ‘graduating` from ChildFund`s support, as the organisation is now ready to continue serving its community on its own. “We`re a little sad, graduating from ChildFund,” Maribel says. “But we`re very satisfied with all the good we`ve done, and we`re equally excited over the opportunities ahead of us.”

MCP will be initiating a local sponsorship program this year, and Maribel is thrilled at the idea of finally being able to sponsor a child herself, and her journey with ChildFund coming full circle.

In 2013, ChildFund is celebrating 75 years of working with children around the world. We will be marking this anniversary by sharing personal stories throughout the year from the children and communities we work with, our wonderful supporters and our dedicated staff here in Australia and overseas. Please share them if you find them inspiring!