I truly believe that the best things in life happen when people follow their hearts and are willing to be unreasonable. I experienced the truth of this statement for the umpteenth time last Saturday.
The story begins in Phagwara, Punjab a few weeks back. I was having a quick lunch with my friend Sanjeev Parmar who happened to be in India visiting family and checking in on the coaches and players at YFC Rurka Kalan. He is one of the most incredible youth football coaches I have ever met and currently runs a successful Academy in Ottawa, Canada. We have been meeting regularly over the past few years during his annual visits to India and I know that on one of these visits I will convince him to move here full-time to support the development of the game. During our south Indian lunch, I quickly mentioned that there is a wonderful football Academy run out of a slum that I’d love to take him to. I had already moved on to the next topic when he said that he would take an early train to Delhi so he could run a session for the Academy players before he had to catch his flight to Canada.
A couple days later I was in Ahmedabad, Gujarat where I flew to surprise my parents and brother who were visiting from the US. My flight got in a bit early and I decided to meet a friend of a close friend at his office. Neil Patel is similar to me, an Indian who grew up in California and chose to move to our parents’ childhood country for professional, personal and spiritual reasons. Although his core business is technology, his passion is clearly contributing to youth through football. During our meeting, he spoke proudly about the football program he is running for a local NGO. At the end of the meeting, he mentioned he would be in Delhi the next week and I said that I would love to take him to a special Academy, of course he accepted.
Then a few days later I was back in Delhi and my friend Saamya mentioned that she has been looking to do more in her life. She is a yoga therapist by profession and has had the strong urge to begin introducing the benefits of yoga to NGOs around India. She requested that I let her accompany me the next time I visit an NGO so she could speak with the program director about yoga.
Fast forward a few days and it’s a blistering cold Saturday afternoon and me, Sanjeev, Neil, Saamya and my driver, Samir, are driving through West Delhi to visit My Angels Academy. When we arrive, we walk past the barren land/public slum toilet which makes me cringe each time I enter the slum. We meander through the dirty, crowded lane past the slum dwellers, down some stairs to get to the Academy clubhouse. Once we enter, everything changes; 50 clean, smiling and loving children gently push their way forward to shake our hands and make us feel welcome in their home. It feels like you enter heaven after experiencing the hell above.
We spend the next hour listening to the man and the heart behind the Academy, Sylvester Peter, share what makes My Angels Academy the special place that it is. Within just 10 seconds of being there, it is clear that the Academy is driven by love and logical discipline (quote from Sylvester), but first love. Sylvester treats each Angel as his own child and the Angels love everything: themselves, each other, dancing, learning, adventuring, and, especially, football. The discipline comes in as they all work together to ensure there is proper structure and reporting taking place each day to assist their own growth and development. We were all amazed by what we learned while sitting inside of the clubhouse; it was management and leadership at its best lived and enforced by individuals who have never had formal training in either.
We leave the clubhouse and walk about a kilometer to the ground for a short training session. Sanjeev brilliantly keeps all 50 Angels engaged for one and a half hours ensuring they are having fun and learning some basic football skills. I told him later that I was a bit concerned in the beginning seeing so many kids of different ages and playing abilities and so few balls and bibs, however Sanjeev is an expert and blew us all away with his energy, quick transitions, sense of humor and caring nature. Neil was pitching in and taking notes the whole time seeing what exercises he could bring into his program in Gujarat while Saamya played with the girls and started exploring all the songs, dances and yoga asanas she could teach the Angels.
After plenty of pictures, hugs and a lot of warm tea we finally hopped in the car and headed back to my house. Our faces were glowing, hearts full of warmth and heads spinning with what more we can do for My Angels Academy. Beyond that, we all felt so connected to each other, like we had been friends for years.
I’m clear that the type of love, discipline and organization seen in My Angels Academy is better than what can be found in most Academies in the world. With literally no resources, Sylvester has transformed children disguised as ragpickers, drug addicts and thieves into mature, loving human beings, not to mention fantastic footballers. I feel blessed that Sylvester and the Angels are in my life and that all I need to do is take a drive out to West Delhi to get a glimpse of the power and transformational qualities of love and football.