Volunteering at UmRio in Brazil

George Laing with a group of students

For my summer in Brazil, I would be based across the city of Rio de Janeiro from where I would commute across the bay, by ferry, to the city of Niteroi and then by bus to the favella of Morro do Castro. This favella was home to the school in which I coached rugby and taught English. UmRio is a charity which uses sport as a springboard to help disadvantaged children get into education and formal employment. Its vision is to provide a safe and enabling environment for children and young people where they can access the tools, resources, and opportunities they need to build their lives. At present, UmRio has 573 beneficiaries in Rio. What’s more, UmRio has a special gender strategy to focus on female inclusion and access. For the team in Brazil, rugby is the lynch pin that brings the community together.

Whilst with UmRio, my two main roles were: providing support to the English teachers; and coaching junior and senior rugby sessions. In the classroom my British accent was a source of great amusement as both the younger and older students would attempt to mimic my voice. My greatest impact was in the advanced English classes where I was able to speak fluently with students becoming a resource with which they could develop their ‘every day’ language. On top of this, I was able to provide colour to the business and ‘textbook’ English they studied. The real joy, however, was being out on the rugby pitch. On Tuesdays and Fridays, the ‘baby blues’ (under 11s) played in the mornings and the more senior students played in the afternoon. The youngest kids took great pleasure in simple games such as ‘who can be first to get the ball after I kick it as far as possible’ and played with such infectious smiles. The more developed players valued the more tactical and technical coaching that I was able to dispense. As ever, rugby sessions in Rio were not simply rugby sessions but took on their own Cariocas character. In my very first afternoon coaching session we were hauled back into the school very promptly mid-session. Given the calm and easy fashion with which the students retreated to the school I was a little perplexed as to why we’d left the field. It turned out that a shootout between the two rival gangs was about to start and lo and behold the sound of gunfire and grenade explosions could be heard within minutes. A first for me in terms of having training cancelled but business as usual for the school. Another, more expected, idiosyncrasy was the pre-session efforts of the juniors to try and dribble the rugby ball like a football. Despite the chaos, I became good friends with the team and hopefully managed to impart some form of wisdom on the students.

Not only was my time working with UmRio enriching but so was my time spent living in the vibrant city of Rio with all its culture, people, and scenery. The city is littered with a rich colonial history dating back to the 16th century. Parts of the city were demolished and rebuilt throughout the following centuries with the ambition of becoming the Paris of South America. Out of this aspiration, favellas grew as parts of the city were cleared. The first favella in Providencia (which I visited) was setup for mercenaries awaiting payment having fought in the Canudos War (19th century). Rio’s culture reflects that of its natural ecosystem: the home of incredible diversity. Murals throughout the city display the imagery of the many sub-cultures who bring the city and its notorious carnival to life. Often, the art captures the poverty and inequality laid bare, sometimes literally, throughout certain neighbourhoods and favellas across the city. The violence was not limited to my time in the favellas. Outside my hostel one afternoon, a gang started a shootout with the police who then had to call the army in to finally put an end to the gunfire. Once again, a first for me, but this time for why I was late to dinner. Luckily, the locals are warned of any violence and can take shelter; the vibrance of people’s spirits is merely paused for a short period of time. The draw of Rio is not limited to its people and their creations (I feel obliged to mention here the Christ Redeemer is very big and a justified wonder of the modern world) but also the geography. The bay and the igneous rock formations which together are a natural wonder of the world (I feel obliged to mention here I had no idea there were natural wonders of the world before I was told about them in Rio). The famous Copacabana beach and Ipanema beach were the perfect setting in which to relax after rugby sessions. One is never far from a game of beach football.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Trinity Hall Association who generously supported my adventure. I was very fortunate to have the support extended even after I had left college. I encourage all students to apply for the charitable grant and take advantage of the experience with which it affords.