Helping low-income kids build character through football

Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit earlier this year, 14-year-old Aiman would lace up his football boots at least once a week to take to the pitch at the New Charis Mission for a training session at the FootballPlus Academy.

The academy is the brainchild of Mr Loh Ngiap Tai, who in 2013 saw a chance to merge his lifelong love of football with his passion for helping young people.

In his previous job running leadership programmes for at-risk youth at charitable organisation YouthWorks, he saw how they struggled with confidence and discipline because they lacked opportunities to explore physical and social activities.

A certified “A” licence coach, the 46-year-old founded FootballPlus, an academy that uses football to engage youth from disadvantaged and low-income families and “teach them positive values”.

FootballPlus received its charity status in June 2014 and attained Institution of a Public Character status in August 2016.

Its community programme includes 70 youth aged seven to 14, of which 90 per cent train weekly for free or at subsidised monthly rates of $20. Coaches are encouraged to do home visits to connect with participants’ parents and understand their home environment, so that youth are given the support they need.

FootballPlus also runs football clinics at family services centres and school-based programmes. It provides coaches to schools and delivers ad hoc football-based parenting workshops.

Mr Loh said: “I want to help them build character through exposure to training and competition because I believe early intervention helps them later on in life.

“Over the years, it has been rewarding to see them grow… We have kids who were very ill-disciplined, always late and fighting in school and in training, and we are very encouraged when we see their transformation into someone who finds joy and even helps out the coaches during training.”

Budding midfielder Aiman, who is identified only by his first name and has trained for five years with FootballPlus, said: “It has been a great experience, we get to meet new friends and train with friendly coaches.

“The coaches here teach us values like resilience, team spirit, finishing well, serving others and self-control, which we can apply in games and in life.”

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FootballPlus also runs Champions Unlimited, a 16-week mentoring programme where participants receive one-on-one mentoring sessions every other week. These sessions are to encourage and facilitate goal-setting, celebrate successes, reflect and review the participants’ decision-making.

It is also a learning opportunity for the mentors, most of whom are volunteers, as they have to undergo eight hours of mandatory training, which includes learning practical ways to handle some of the issues youth face.

The programme was halted during the coronavirus pandemic, but is set to restart next year.

Ms Ho Wen Jin, 28, who has been a FootballPlus coach for six years, said: “With FootballPlus, I see its mission clearly, and I get tremendous satisfaction from watching kids, who start off with no confidence because they don’t have the opportunity to play, grow gradually over the years and develop positive qualities.”

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