There is a popular Nigerian proverb that says “It takes a village to raise a child.”
Like many adages, this one rings true, and has been widely quoted by politicians, community organizers, and grandmothers alike. The saying is particularly relevant to the world of NGOs and nonprofits, where donors, organizers, social entrepreneurs and volunteers often join forces to create positive changes in the lives of youth. Ask any founder of a successful youth-oriented NGO, and they are likely to credit their impact to collaboration and teamwork. At the same time, transforming an inspiring idea into a sustainable, effective program for change often requires the particular dedication and insight of a certain individual. If teamwork keeps the wheels rolling, individual leadership steers the cart.
Empower 2 Play exemplifies collaborative change making, but its ascent from a single two-day football camp into an international movement for youth empowerment primarily hinges on two essential individuals. The first is AK Ikwuakor, who is more commonly referred to as “Coach AK.” Coach AK serves many roles: idea-generator, encourager, philanthropist, and coach. The second is Cristina “TinTin” Sion. Introduced to Coach AK when he visited a friend in the Philippines, TinTin has been part of the E2P family from the very beginning. She initially volunteered to help cook for the first two-day camp, a task that was certainly a challenge considering the hundreds of participants involved, but Coach AK quickly recognized TinTin’s potential to become an ally and leader for the organization.
TinTin admits that she felt daunted when faced with the responsibility of overseeing the on-the-ground workings of E2P in Quezon City, the Philippines.
She said, “I didn’t have any idea of how to handle the pressure at first.” The support and advice of Coach AK, combined with the inspirational effect of the program on the children in the community, ultimately encouraged TinTin to draw on her inherent leadership capabilities. With her insider’s knowledge, unwavering commitment to the students, and incredible optimism, TinTin plays an essential role in the sustainability of E2P’s impact in Quezon City.
Born and raised in Quezon, TinTin knows firsthand the challenges encountered by young people in her community. She says that students face many obstacles to obtaining a full education. At the same time, the community places value on studies; students who can’t afford college tuition often work long hours to pay for themselves to learn. “Even in a family where the father is the only one working, and there are many siblings to care for, they make a point that if they can walk, they will go to school. Even if there is no food to eat,” TinTin explains. Her own childhood was happy, she says, in spite of the many “ups and downs” that come with life in Quezon. She says some children are less fortunate and are unable to continue in school. These kids may end up doing “bad things,” or may simply have to work full time instead to support their families.
TinTin herself understands hard work. A mother of three children, she works as a call center agent supporting a multinational telecommunications corporation. She takes the night shift because most of the callers are based in the US. She also has experienced her share of life challenges, being raised by an aunt after her parents separated, and later supporting her father when he was handicapped in an accident. She balances all this with her dedication to E2P.
“When I see the life of these kids in these communities, I feel lucky and blessed that my life when I was a kid was not as miserable. I have realized that they need me; they trust me and tell me their problems.”
Gaining the trust of the community proves critical for expanding the reach of E2P. In addition to serving as a primary organizer for the annual athletic camps, TinTin identifies key students who would benefit the most from being selected to be E2P scholars. She makes sure that these students meet with Coach AK. Perhaps most crucially, TinTin monitors the progress of the students at school, noting any difficulties they encounter, their grades, and their general well-being. So far, three of the students involved in the first camps have graduated from elementary school. They are now in high school making high grades and on their way to chasing their dreams. The vulnerability of young students in these communities makes TinTin’s check-ins vital for ensuring that the progress made during E2P’s athletic camps sustains itself throughout the school year.
TinTin is a perfect spokeswoman for the organization, with her dedication to the students and her friendship with other members of the E2P family motivating her commitment. In the beginning, she had her doubts about American football: “I thought it would be very difficult to teach the young people here, who are not familiar with the sport.” After the success of the first camp, she now encourages other who are skeptical about the benefits. She said, “In just two days, the camp brought the kids discipline and asked them to challenge themselves. They were taught how to win with an equal fight.”
In a life where the odds had been previously stacked against them, the students discovered new skills and their own capacity to push themselves on a level playing field.
TinTin says she values the trust placed on her ability to lead E2P towards its next achievements. Just as collaborators, donors, volunteers and fellow students across the globe enjoy reading about success stories like John, TinTin finds seeing firsthand the joy of each student to be the most rewarding aspect of her contribution to E2P. She says, “When you see the kids smiling at the end of the day – even when their lives are so difficult – this is the most fulfilling work.” With individuals like TinTin coming together to establish the Empower 2 Play “village,” it seems destined to continue making positive changes in the lives of young leaders. As TinTin says, “This is an organization that can change the life of every young person who wants to dream big.”