SINGAPORE - Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit earlier this year, 14-year-old Aiman would lace up his football boots once a week to take to the pitch at 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 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: "Many kids struggle with confidence and discipline because they don't have the opportunities due to financial constraints.
"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 and develop good character. 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."
Aiman (who is only identified by his first name) has trained five years with FootballPlus and the budding midfielder said: "It has been a great experience, we get to meet new friends and train with friendly coaches. My time with Football Plus has helped me improve as a player and as a person.
"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."
FootballPlus also runs the Champions, 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 the needs of young people, practical ways to handle some of the issues youth face, and role playing of the mentoring sessions.
The programme was halted during the coronavirus pandemic, but is set to restart next year.
Ms Ho Wen Jin, who has been a FootballPlus coach for six years, said: "This job is in line with my passion, which is working with kids and youth.
"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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