The financial and mental impact on people during this time of COVID-19 seems insurmountable. The most positive of us cannot possibly save everyone from psychological and economical demise. However, perhaps those of us who are able, should make the effort to help at least a handful of those who need it the most.
This is certainly what Andre Virtue, Founder, Director and CEO of Ballaz Academy, is doing, and then some. “We are usually in the business of coaching football and lives,” Virtue told me recently. “We had just completed renovating our fields (on Devon Road, Kingston), but on March 13, everything stopped. The only thing my coaches and staff knew at that moment, was they now had no income,” he continued, morosely.
Such is life, right? I mean, the coronavirus outbreak certainly wasn’t Andre Virtue’s fault! He could feel bad, but why should he take on the problems of more than a score of personnel and their families, when he had his own family to look after?
Why indeed? I’ll tell you something about Andre Virtue that most people, including myself, didn’t know. In my quest to discover the hidden heroes of this pandemic, I got a message from a friend on social media: “Andre Virtue, who runs Ballaz Academy and the Liberty Football Club, is truly a special man, who has impacted a number of lives in a very special way. There’s so much to him that people wouldn’t know. And he really is a special fellow.” My own sons have both played periodically, on Saturdays and in the after-school program run by Ballaz, over the last nine years, but I never knew any of this about the man. What I did know is there have been three coaches from Ballaz who have positively affected my boys and their memories. I suppose it does stand to reason that there could be something about these three coaches that is related to the said special quality held by Virtue.
What could Virtue do to help all his now unemployed coaches and other staff members, most of whom are from impoverished inner city communities? In trying to figure out a way to give back, he reached out to them and discussed what their most pressing issues were. “It was hard for many of them to put into words and fathom a new normal. Sharing their main problems brought me to tears,” he said. “While my business was affected, I realised that their real lives were being affected with health and food issues.” Virtue decided to swallow his pride and call some of the parents, whose boys are coached by Ballaz. “It is hard to beg for help, as this time is challenging and everyone is affected, but both cash and kind were given. Slowly, other people started to call and donate towards care packages.” Andre and his family had enough to pack up 25 care packages to start with. He asked the coaches to come and collect them. However, upon realising that some coaches didn’t have transport, as it was unsafe to take the bus, Andre took the packages to them. They really appreciated it and started to share what they were given with their neighbours. “They kept saying I didn’t have to do it,” he informed me. As if that would stop him! The following week, he and his family packed up another 50 boxes, and another 50 the week after that, and so it goes on. For sustainability, Virtue is committed to filling 25-35 care packages every two weeks. “We made a list of items and asked Ballaz family, friends and parents to contribute towards filling these. The 18 coaches and 7 staff were a priority, but it has now extended to about 15 Liguanea United Club players,” he told me.
So what about the mental wellbeing of these coaches? In the weekly zoom sessions, set up by Virtue, it has come out that some of them are depressed. How does one remain relevant in football? Or if you want to do something else, how do you go about learning that new thing too? It is a very daunting prospect to try and reinvent oneself, while being cooped up at home. “Unexpressed thoughts can explode like a Pepsi bottle,” Andre pointed out. “We are creating a community to encourage our coaches to share how they are feeling and coping, week after week.” Virtue has even invited guest speakers and coaches in other parts of the world to join their zoom meetings, so they can all share tips and advice.
Depending on the handouts can be quite demoralizing, of course, so Virtue has set up online football coaching classes for kids, as a way of giving some kind of financial support to his coaches. It’s not the same, but “We can offer the personal touch by encouraging the kids and telling them how to improve their game. We can have up to 15 kids in each class, which will cost J$1000 (US$6.50) per 45 minute session. It is slowly picking up and we have also reached out to schools,” said Virtue. Kids in Kingston have become used to doing online school, which has included P.E. sessions, having been put in this precarious position eight weeks ago, so it’s not too difficult to imagine how this could actually work well.
“We need to think opportunity, rather than crisis, by changing our perspective. We have to share our ideas and visions, so we can all grow together. One of the worst things to do is become quiet in a time of crisis,” Andre insists. “Someone sharing might be helpful for someone else. You might not have money to give, but each part helps. Each one teach one, never to mislead one. Each one help one, you never have too little help. We need to be changing the world one goal at a time. Don’t give with expectation. Help out a brother in need and watch what happens,” this gracious mentor concluded. There is indeed virtue in giving back.
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