Former Duck track star makes a difference in impoverished Philippines community
The national sport of the Philippines is the martial art Arnis. Basketball is the most popular team sport, while Manny Pacquiao, the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Organization’s “Fighter of the Decade” for the 2000s, is its favorite son, popular enough to be elected to the country’s House of Representatives.
Filipinos love sport, so much so that they have an annual sporting festival known as Palarong Pambansa, where 12,000 student-athletes from around the country come together to compete in everything from Arnis to chess to volleyball. What they don’t play, however, is football—or at least not the type played by Marcus Mariota and Peyton Manning.
All of that makes the sight of 200 children tearing around fields in an impoverished Quezon City neighborhood, throwing hail marys and juking defenders with Nerf balls tucked under their arms, more than a little unusual.
But to AK Ikwuakor ’07—a three-time All American track star at the UO who still holds school records in the indoor and outdoor 4x400-meter relay, and who earned a degree in sociology from the College of Arts and Sciences—“unusual” is exactly the point.
Now in its second year, Ikwuakor’s “Empower 2 Play” camp teaches life skills—and football skills—to children in Quezon City who are in danger of falling through the cracks in the Philippines’ society.
“Most of these kids live in shacks in shanty towns,” Ikwuakor said. “All the kids that we work with are really under resourced; their parents are living on maybe $50–$100 a month.”
While planning a visit last year to see Kareem Jackson, a friend who writes for Philippines Magazine International, Ikwuakor—now the associate dean of students at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire—decided to hold a sports camp along the lines of the ones he worked while a student-athlete at the UO. In two weeks, Ikwuakor planned the camp and arranged for prizes and food for more than 100 children, then traveled to Quezon City to teach life skills and a sport many Filipinos have never seen before.
“Through seven translators, we have to teach American football in two days,” said Ikwuakor. “Most of the kids did not know what football was before this. They know soccer and they may know rugby, but they don’t know football.”
The choice of a sport the children are unfamiliar with was no accident, either.
“There’s the life skills element of learning something new and getting outside of your comfort zone,” Ikwuakor said of his decision to coach a sport that was as foreign to Filipinos as Arnis is to Americans. “We have the motto of ‘Empowering communities one sport at a time.’ I like to do sports that are team-oriented, and the new skills mean they have to pay attention and learn. You see whether or not they’re gaining that information.”
Competing collegiately for the University of Oregon in both track and football, and professionally for Nigeria in track, taught Ikwuakor about goal setting, confidence, teamwork, and having the determination to succeed no matter what the conditions may be. He uses football to teach these same traits to the children of Quezon City, with a goal much loftier than winning an NCAA championship.
“What we’re doing is building a community, through understanding networking and understanding that combined skills make for a stronger community,” he said.
One of the activities Ikwuakor gets the children to do is write down on a piece of paper what they would like to be when they grow up, and then find other camp participants with similar life goals.
“I said, ‘This is now your accountability group,’” he said. “The next time you see this person out in the community not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, you say, ‘This is not what we agreed to.’’ Right now what we want to do and create is having an accountability partner for something positive.”
However, some of the children need more assistance than others, and some are perilously close to falling into lifestyles that no child would voluntarily write down as a life goal. Thanks to Ikwuakor’s generosity, however, they’re now one large step closer to achieving their dreams.
“When I was here last year there were four kids that were walking around during school hours,” he said. “These kids were 12–13 years old. We were having a conversation, and I found out that a lot of these kids do not have enough money to go to school. They can’t afford transportation or uniforms. I asked, ‘What happens to the girls who don’t have an education?’ They said they end up in prostitution, at 14 years old. So this year we offered seven scholarships to kids, so seven kids will be able to go to school. Now we can say you can be that doctor, you can be that teacher that you want to be.
“When you see a mother crying because she says that she hasn’t had any support and that the scholarship for her kid is going to help her live her dream? That’s enough for me. I feel like I can make an impact.”
Ikwuakor pays for the scholarships out of his own pocket, along with the sporting equipment and prize money for the team that wins the flag football competition at the end of the camp’s second day. The US embassy provides snacks, sports drinks, and shampoo, while members of the community make banners and t-shirts for the event, and cook meals to feed the volunteers and participants.
“They were out there for 10 hours a day in the hot sun, serving the food and drinks and making sure the kids were in line,” Ikwuakor said of the locals who offered their time to help the camp. “The community has been amazing.”
For the children themselves, the entire camp experience can be overwhelming. The participants get their names on their t-shirts, get certificates for participating and prize money for winning, and they get to see their faces on posters promoting the event.
“The kids had never seen themselves on a poster, so seeing that they were overjoyed,” Ikwuakor said. “In their lives they’re invisible, people don’t notice them. We want to empower them. These kids are no different to kids in the United States; they just haven’t had the opportunity.”
With two successful camps conducted in the Philippines, Empower 2 Play is now looking at expanding worldwide. In keeping with the theme of offering non-traditional sports to get the participants out of their comfort zones, Ikwuakor would like to see softball camps in Africa and cricket camps in the United States, among others.
If you would like to work with AK Ikwuakor on a camp in your area, or for more information about how you can support future Empower 2 Play camps, visit empower2play.org.