Richard Janes:The number of homeless youth around the world is staggering, with some putting the number as high as 100 million children. My guest today has dedicated his life to supporting this vulnerable and often brushed aside part of our community. From organizing events for Sarah Brown, wife of the former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, through to working in one of Rio’s most dangerous favelas, he has seen firsthand the devastating effects that homelessness brings. What may surprise you is the tool through which he approaches his work – that of soccer. Now, for many, soccer is more than a sport, it's a passion. Its dominance as the most popular sport in the world is unparalleled with nearly half of the world’s population tuning in during the 2018 World Cup. But what many fans are not aware of is the other Soccer World Cup Tournament that kicks off just a few weeks prior – that of the Street Child World Cup, an event that unites former homeless and street connected youth from around the world to play soccer and attend a participatory conference to challenge the negative perception and treatment of homeless youth across the world. My guest today is Joe Hewitt, the CEO and founder of The Sports Creative, a newly formed non-profit creating sports programs and partnerships around the world for at-risk youth. We started off by diving into that defining moment when his passion found a purpose.
Joe Hewitt:When I was 16 years old, my father took me to visit by brother who lived in South Africa at the time. He left when I was 12, so he was 21 and he was working with street children. Now, I went in there for the summer and I volunteered this street child organization. Whilst there, I thought what can I do, what’s useful for me to do. And I loved football, so I would set up football trainings every day with the kids there. And I got particularly close with a young lad called Pinda. Pinda wasn’t great at football and he was very good at basketball and I was terrible at basketball, so we’d teach other these sports each day and we built a friendship. And here’s a middleclass kid from England and a kid from the streets in South Africa, but there was this bond through sport that was very, very powerful. When I left, I left a Tottenham jersey under his pillow and then went back to my life in the UK. Six months later, he was murdered. You know, it was probably over less than a pound or something like that, less than a dollar. My brother told me that news and I was very young at the time and it stunned me and I thought how different the trajectories of our lives were. What I took away from that was the bridge that had been built through sport, through football, through basketball. I don’t think I played football again without thinking of a pair of sport and what it can be and what a bridge it can be in society, and I suppose I kind of thought if any I could have stayed longer and could have kept building that friendship with Pinda. When I was a teenager, I was trying very much to fit in and try to be part of the cool group, always tried to assimilate and to fit in. And when I heard that news about Pinda and I was reflecting on the work my brother was doing out there, I found it very inspiring—I found it very inspiring. So I think it changed my way of thinking. I think that was the start of a new path for me. Two years later I went on to study International Development and Community Studies and to try and discover who I was and to find my passion because I think for so long I had just as many teenagers do, you try to fit in and be part of the cool crowd. I grew up in a wonderful family, a very supportive family and I’ve always felt like I am somebody, but there’s a lot of young people who don’t have that support in their life and you can understand why they feel the way they do. The structures of life haven’t been there for them. The structure of the family which you and I might have experienced. The structure of society, again, which we have experienced. They haven’t had no protection of their rights as children, the right to play safely, the right to develop safely. The narrative for them in society is you’re a failure. You’re going to die or you’re going to end up in jail. And we have to remind these young people that they own their narrative and actually everyone, no matter what context they’re in, has had some success in their life, has had some achievement in their life, and we look at these instances with young people and say, how did you achieve that success in your life? Was there a team around you who helped you? What are your code of ethics? And I’ve met, you know, Sicario, a hitman I say but he’s a child in Mexico City who just wanted to go home. And I met him on the streets. This is about six months ago. And he just talked about wanting to go home and have a childhood. I think the point of all that is how do we work with these young people to bring them back into society, these very marginalized, very damaged young people. So we start with football, with soccer that it’s really a metaphor for life as well. There’s a therapy called Team of Life which comes out of The Dulwich Center in Australia, and that's about looking at your football team around you. What’s your goal? Who are the people in your life who’d defend you? Who are the midfielders who defend you but also help you move forward? Who are the strikers who help you achieve your goal? They might write a letter to get you into a college or into a job. Who’s your coach? Now, I might say my father was the person who’s taught me the most. For a street kid, they're likely not going to say a parent. It might be someone who’s on the streets for them. But you start to look at the structure that they have and say how can we achieve goals away from the risk, away from the streets with the Team of Life around you. And that's through an analogy. A lot of these kids won’t have been through education but they understand football and they understand that there’s a team around every goal. I don’t think we’re, by nature, individualistic; we are, by nature, communal and we want to achieve our goals but when we achieve our goals as part of a team, that's very, very powerful and that reaffirms our value.
Richard Janes Commentary:Positive psychology has always emphasized the personal well-being benefits of social relationship and connectedness to others. In 2006 the American Psychological Association published a study that found that groups of 3, 4 or 5 perform better on complex problem-solving than the best of the equivalent number of individuals. And that's no surprise, right? As evolutionary speaking, we were meant to be operating as teams. From the women forming groups to protect themselves, cooperate on tasks and rearing children through to the alpha male would never be seen walking alone without his followers. Once you are in a team, you are stronger. But in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City where Joe started his work, the biggest tribes, the most powerful tribes are the drug cartels. Through the sports creative, Joe and his team offer an alternative experience in an environment where alternatives are very hard to come by.
Joe Hewitt:When young people are involved in a program like this that has a clear methodology, that has different pillars whether it’d be conflict resolution, gender equity, values, leadership, teamwork, when you have young people involved in a program like that over a long period of time, the success rates are very, very high because it gives them a sense of value. It also gives them hope. Through it they start to look at these are my goals in life, how do I achieve them, how do I build the team around me, what do I need from others in order to achieve them. Just that belief in these young people gives them the feeling that they can achieve, so it’s extremely high. Now, the lure of making quick money, of having a pair of sneakers, of having a motorbike, and then maybe you get a girlfriend because you got the cool clothes, something like that is also very, very strong. But at least children, if they have the option, they can choose the better path and when we work with these young people we immediately look at what are your values, what are your code of ethics because everyone has a code of ethics. Now, you know, kids on the street in another city, they may absolutely hate local authorities or anyone in society in general but actually amongst their group they feel safe and they will do whatever they have to do to defend their group. Now that's a place to start. And why would they trust society if society has spat them out? So we start to say okay, how can we build this structure, reintroduce the theory of a society that cares for these children that supports them, that helps them reach their full potential. And that's very powerful for a young person when you see that trust blossom and they go from being completely marginalized and on the outskirts of society to thinking “Actually, maybe I can go to college,” or “Maybe when I'm 16 I can get a job,” or “I could go into a shelter and I don’t have to live on the streets.” That's very powerful to see. So I find sport is a wonderful way to engage young people and especially football. Down in Mexico City the outreach team there would go out onto the streets and will start with a soccer game. Two rules: No drugs, positive attitude – and you can play. And actually what they're doing these young children are away from sniffing glue or ethanol for just two hours and that's the start. Now the end of that process is trying to get them into a shelter or, where viable, reintegrated with their families where it’s safe. But first and foremost, just step away from the drugs and just play. Now that's a wonderful first bridge. And there’s something incredible about soccer that when you just put a ball down, you forget that these are street children, you forget that these are seen as a threat to society and you just see them playing. I was in Mexico City with three board members maybe six months ago. We went out 9 AM to Revolution Square, this is in the middle of the city and there were children sleeping and the social educators woke the children up and said “Okay, let’s go and have a game of football.” And there was a 19-year-old young woman there who came to play football and she had a six-month-old baby who had been asleep with her on the street. She said “I named him after Toy Story. His name is Andy.” So one of the social educators took Andy and said, “I’ll look after him, you play.” And the transformation in this young woman’s face when she started playing football, this a young woman who’s had to survive on the streets, who’s had a terrible childhood and she just started to play football. You could see the relaxation, the joy, the play on her face.
Richard Janes Commentary:You could ask millions of children and teenagers from around the world what would be your dream job and they would respond “playing football”. And here Joe is building a career where he gets to play football, embrace that enormous passion that he’s held since he was a child and make a meaningful impact on the lives of others. For so many of us we held a passion in our youth that was shut down as foolish to pursue or unrealistic, as a pipe dream that should perhaps be pursued as a hobby and on the side, but only once we’ve done our real work of schooling or building a respectable career. But after his experience with Pinda in South Africa, Joe knew he could make a difference and he looked for every opportunity to help. One such opportunity was with Street Child United and the first ever Street Child World Cup in 2010.
Joe Hewitt:The beautiful game of football, of soccer should be for everyone. So the Street Child World Cup was to give these young people a platform and say “actually football is for you, you are welcome, you get to play.” And it was a way of again building a bridge to society who had just dismissed these children and saying when we see them as children, when we see them playing, we see them as humans and as children. That was very powerful. So I heard about the concept and I got involved as a consultant and I then went for a full-time job after that and was with them until very recently. And so the first one was 8 countries, so 80 children from different countries around the world. And it was just a very, very powerful event, you know, the feedback from the children who participated and there’s a conference alongside it was that they were seen differently and it gave them a very powerful platform. So from there it grew. In 2014, in Brazil, we had 230 girls and boys from around the world, so it grew considerably to Brazil in 2014. So Street Child United partners with NGOs across the world. So these aren’t kids who are literally living on the streets at that point. They are kids who have come off the streets. They're in shelter, they're in education. They're the examples to other children. They're the young ambassadors that actually they have experienced street life living or working on the streets is the definition. But now they're away from that. So they're a wonderful example and also they have to be at a point in their personal development program and psychologically where they cannot be negatively affected by going to another country for 10 days when they may never have traveled abroad before. So it’s about working very closely with the partner organization to understand who’s most appropriate for this incredible experience.
Richard Janes Commentary:But it was four years later working as the head of America for the organization behind the 2014 Rio Street Child World Cup that Joe saw his next opportunity – an opportunity that most people would never be exposed to.
Joe Hewitt:When you go to Rio, you come out of the airport, you go to the beach. There’s the Copacanaba or Ipanema. You don’t go to the complex or the Penhas, a no-go zone. You could not go in there without the community. But I was introduced to the community by one little Dutch character who had worked there for many years and therefore I got to know the community. In those communities there are guns everywhere and this is a socially excluded area, so the drug traffickers are in charge and drug trafficking is the main business. This is why we’re trying to do the work, is to get the young people not to pick up the gun but to go another route. In order to build a soccer field in 2015, we had to sit down with the drug traffickers and it’s pretty scary sitting down with folks with an AK-47 and a clocked pistol who just sat there at the table and you’re asking for permission to work there. Now, they were extremely welcoming to us because we were working with their brothers and sisters and they know how hard their life is and they know we’re not there to make any profit, to take advantage, to interrupt their trade. Nothing to do with that. We’re working with the kids, with their brothers and sisters and trying to show them a better way. So we got their full support. On the flipside, we had the full support of the police. Now this is a war. This is a war between the traffickers and the police, but we were welcomed by both sides. I was never targeted but I was around a lot of shootings and the spot where the football field, the soccer field is was in disrepair. They were using it as a place for trash. It was horrible but the kids were still playing there or playing on the streets and this is a very dangerous area. So we believe children should have a safe space to play and we called it a safe space. It’s on the shoulder of the community which means it’s not directly in line of fire of any of the main streets where there’s often shootouts and so forth. So it's up against the wall. It’s by no means a safe part of the world as we would think it but for these children, they’re living in that community and at least it gives them a space and we said no guns. So for the police, for the traffickers, whoever’s in charge that day. No guns on the field and it was a place for the children.
Richard Janes:So how did the police react to the idea of no guns as well?
Joe Hewitt:Well, the police, if there’s an operation they’re coming through, they were very open to what we were doing, says this is what the community needs but if there’s an operation, there’s an operation. But we asked that they not patrol through the field, they go around the field so that the children just have the space to themselves.
Richard Janes:Were there kids who just didn’t want help?
Joe Hewitt:Yes, there are. I remember we did a soccer tournament in an area called the Atalho in Flamengo in Rio and we got our soccer team from the community to come down and play in this event. And it was an event for street kids. And while they allowed as many of the kids who were still living on the streets rather than being in a shelter or a project to participate, and many of these children were high on crack, and that's a very complex situation to be in. And we could sense it so we decided to get our young people out. At that point we could hear some of the street kids say that they were going to rob me because I'm the obvious foreigner and I'm the obvious gringo in the group, so we could hear them say “we’re going to rob the gringo”. And the girls, it was our girls team from the community who folded their arms and stood around me in a circle and protected me. And, you know, the street kids who were there were no joke. It could have been a very difficult situation but they stood around and said that's not going to happen. Through my work I’ve met some incredible young people and seen some lives change and that's very powerful, but I've also seen young people who life hasn’t changed. Go back to the story of Pinda who unfortunately lost his life far too early a stage and I’ve met many young people who have unfortunately gone back to drugs, back to the streets or have died. And that's a great challenge in processing that. But at the same time, those inspirational stories that keep me going. And I think you have to talk about these things. Storing it up is not a very clever idea. So it's important to talk about it to people and I can talk about it to Lisa, my wife. But it’s certainly a mental challenge in things I’ve seen and in Rio I witnessed a lot of violence. Rio is a wonderful, wonderful city with incredible people but in a moment, violence can erupt especially in the communities in the favelas. I was around a lot of violence there and the impact for me as a foreigner, I was able to go back to the wealthier side of town once I had finished work, but for the children living in that community is what they learned to live with. And that's a huge challenge and I guess that inspires me to keep going and keep the work, supporting them because they deserve better.
Richard Janes Commentary:“They deserve better.” When you are able to inject a bigger purpose into your life, you will stop at nothing to achieve it. The stakes become that much greater and in Joe’s case, he’s living a life surrounded by his passion of football all the while speaking to the bigger purpose, and it was the calling of this bigger purpose that led him just a few short months ago to leave the employment of the charities he had been working with to launch his own nonprofit, The Sports Creative. Now for many of us who have launched our own business, the stakes feel enormous. We fail, we lose all that blood, sweat and tears that we put in. We lose the money that perhaps we or investors have put on the table. But when the going gets tough which it always will do, is that enough to have us persevere, to hold on to no matter what. With Joe, he already has boots on the ground in Mexico City, in Rio de Janeiro, and is on the cusp of launching his first US project. Money is tight and the stakes are high not just for him and the kids he serves, but also for his team.
Joe Hewitt:I’ve just started The Sports Creative. We create sport programs and partnerships for youth organizations which is the first organization I've started and we’re brand new. We’re working in Mexico City in Rio and we’re just about to agree our first US project. So we work in three places. We employ three young people from the community, from the favela in Rio de Janeiro. We employed a brilliant young woman down in Rio de Janeiro called Jessica. She was trafficking drugs and weapons. She started by transporting drugs from favela to favela, community to community, then city to city, so Rio to Sao Paulo and across borders in the end. So that was a very dangerous life. She wanted to leave that life but she was getting deeper and deeper into it to the point where she was asked to kill someone which she said she couldn’t do. So at this point she met this youth worker, this Dutch youth worker and he said, “I want you to come and be a coach because we’re going to teach soccer to the kids around here.” That changed her life and she now works for us and is an incredible inspiration to the children of the community. They know what she’s been through, they know she’s been at the hard end of it. We’re really proud to support her and she’s just a brilliant youth worker. So, stories like that, the life expectancy for young people who are in the drug trafficking business for instance is very low, but she followed a passion for football and she was supported to follow that passion. And we employed one brilliant young woman in Mexico City, Jessica Villasenor. She grew up in East LA. She had gang members killed on her front lawn. A very, very tough area she grew up. Her brother went to the streets at 15, got into drugs, got into jail. Jessica followed the soccer path. She ended up having trials for the US Women’s National Team. And she didn’t get in but she’s still a fantastic player and she’s followed the soccer path. She’s doing her PhD in sociology at the University of Chicago and she’s working for us. And her talent as a youth worker mixed with her intellectual, academic background is just a very, very powerful force for supporting young people. So when I say we got to employ people and keep them funded, we’re funding some incredible people and I always talked about Jessica in Rio. So there’s two Jessica’s; one in Mexico City, one in Rio, both of them incredibly inspiring stories and brilliant youth workers. And then there’s me and that's it at the moment. So very, very small and it’s about funding the salaries of those working with the young people and then also getting sponsorship deals like sports equipment be it goals, footballs, jerseys, that kind of thing. But those are the heroes. The people on the front line who go out in very, very dangerous circumstances and say to a child “you’re of value, you are valued” and they build up that trust over time. They are at risk in that reaching out especially when children are on drugs on the streets. However, you see the trust that these people build and they’re incredible figures. And again, I could be sat at a desk doing a job in the city of London or wherever and I would never get to experience or see something like this and see these heroes who are on the front lines working with these kids and building that first moment of trust. And if we can help them with soccer, with sport, then a live my job.
Richard Janes:What’s your biggest challenge at the moment?
Joe Hewitt:We are living month to month on keeping The Sports Creative going. We can afford it this month but not next month and that's where we are. We’re looking at costs around $9,000 per month at the moment to operate and to run our programs. Part of that, we are spending on some support with our offering to the sponsorship world so we’re getting some support in achieving corporate partnerships, for instance. But most of that money is spent on salaries and going to the front line.
Richard Janes:Is there any moment where you think “This is too tough. I should throw in the towel”?
Joe Hewitt: I’ll never throw in the towel. Whether I need to take on other consultancy work and have other income streams for sure, but I’ll never give up on what we’re doing because what we’re doing is very, very powerful and we’re going to change a lot of lives. I will make sure that we pay the bills best off but I didn’t get a full salary last month because first, we pay the employees and we pay for the programs and then see if I can get a salary out of it. And it may come to the point where I have to get other work and do this part of the week. It really needs my full-time attention so I'm determined not to let that happen but that's the reality I will fall on my sword first. It’s passion from my heart, so yes, it’s scary but it’s also extremely exciting. And if we built something and I couldn’t see the impact, I would not do it but I can see the impact. There’s passion, there’s purpose, but there’s also responsibility and when you employ people, there’s a responsibility. We have responsibilities to our family. What I've done puts a lot of pressure on my relationship for Lisa and I and this is something we very openly speak about because it’s a reality and we should be honest or I hope as a society we’re more honest about the pressures in life and sometimes we put these images out there of ourselves that everything’s perfect. But doing something like this is a sacrifice and it’s a sacrifice for your family as well. And you got to make sure that you’ve got their full support and that your strategy is there to meet your passion. Passion, to me, is about not being alive but feeling alive. I am alive and I am grateful for that but to feel alive, to get up in the morning and just take a deep breath and think “Okay, let’s go to work” and feel very passionate about that and to build a soccer field and then see the faces of these kids when they're playing soccer and playing safely and developing safely, I mean, I’ve been fortunate enough, struggles and all to follow my passion. I'm very grateful for that. Everyone has a passion and it can be completely different, but I think we have to try and stop our brains a little while of always looking at what is next and saying “Okay, what do I really feel passionate there about?” And that, whether it's through meditation, whether it’s through a workshop, it’s very important to stop and just to get our bearings again and say “What am I passionate about and am I following that?” And it’s checking in with yourself really. It’s checking in and saying “What am I most passionate about?” And I think everyone is passionate about something. Purpose for me comes directly from the passion and I don’t feel the purpose is fixed. It’s something that we experience as we go along life’s journey. What is clearly fixed for me is a passion in a certain area that I care greatly about the player or sport to help fund young people. Now, out of that we have goals. We have our goals with the projects we serve. So whether that’s to build a field to set up a program, those are the goals for us and that's what we must achieve. But purpose will change and I think that's one of the beautiful things about life is that your purpose changes but your passion is always there.
Richard Janes Commentary:Your passion is always there. Even if deep down you’ve lost the ability to articulate exactly what that passion is. Now if that’s you or your ability to speak your true passion is a little murky or unconvoluted, or perhaps now’s the time in Joe’s words to stop your brain from thinking about what’s next and start thinking about what really fills your heart. What brings a smile to your face that you would love given the chance to be spending all your time exploring? Now once you have that clarity, the next step, the very next step is to give yourself the chance because nobody is going to do that for you, nobody took Joe by the hand to launch his charity and nobody mapped out his roadmap and said “Hey Joe, follow this and you’ll be a success.” It’s up to you just as Joe has done to give yourself the chance. And with that said, if you’re interested in giving Joe’s organization a better chance today than it had yesterday, you can check him out at www.thesportscreative.com.
Richard Janes:Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. It’s been an absolute pleasure hearing your story and I so look forward to seeing the journey that these kids that you’re helping are going through, through your own storytelling.
Joe Hewitt:Thank you, Richard.