Clara Hughes: Right To Play Canada
I spent an hour on the phone with Clara Hughes.
Yes, THAT Clara Hughes.
The six-time Olympian and only athlete in history to win medals in both the summer and winter games.
And what did I learn from our conversation?
Clara Hughes is committed to Right To Play.
While my involvement with Right To Play is new, Clara’s is steadfast.
She’s been involved for six years. That’s right, while she was training for the Olympics she made time for this cause.
Most of us can hardly make time for dinner.
I’m so honoured to have been asked to partner with this incredible human being on “We Build Peace” (the Level The Field Campaign I’ve been asking you to vote for.
I asked Clara to share some of her insights about the organization with Globetrotting Mama readers.
1. You’ve won six Olympic medals and competed in both summer and winter games (and are the only Canadian to have won gold medals in both!). With all that that entails in terms of training and focus, it would be understandable if you said “I don’t have time for anything else in my life right now,” yet you’ve been involved with Right To Play for years. Why was/is the work of the organization important to you? And does it call on any of the skills you’ve learned from your career as an Olympian and world-class athlete?
Quite honestly my engagement with Right To Play is precisely what kept me going as an athlete. I competed and prepared to compete at the highest level for 22 years and I learned early on that it was not enough to have success alone. This reality hit me after I won my first two Olympic medals; I had lived this incredible dream and had all this success and then within a year I was in a severe depression.
My life had no balance and a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was only focused on being an athlete and was consumed by applying myself to my sport. As a result, I was over-trained and miserable. I finally figured out how I could make my success more than just a personal achievement when I connected with Right To Play in 2006. I won an Olympic gold medal that year but I really feel I became a champion because I had connected, contributed and committed to these phenomenal programs that are shifting the minds, hearts and lives of hundreds of thousands of children. So it didn’t take a second thought to continue giving time, energy and money to Right To Play. It gave me balance and meaning in what I was doing and in many ways helped me continue competing until I was a hair shy of 40 years old.
2. I know that you’ve been to Rwanda before. What were your impressions of the country and its people?
I am here again right now and it is the same: the people are beautiful and their spirit’s shines. They have been through so much as a nation and yet they are able to move forward and look at the hope the future holds. There is great concern and focus on keeping hope alive and giving children a future. The Right To Play programs help with the healing process and Rwandans to move forward. Kigali is a really safe city, I love going out each morning for a run and to explore checking out how people’s everyday lives begin (I run at around 545 am because we are so busy here with everything and anything Right To Play, it is the only time to go out and do some exercise for myself!) It’s also nice to get out for an hour on foot and absorb all that has happened on the trip: all the people we’ve met, experiences we’ve had and inspiration I feel inside.
3. What difference have you seen Right To Play make in the lives of kids in Rwanda?
They are allowing so many more girls to be involved in sport and play programs, which helps a whole generation of females in this country to gain confidence and aspire to be anything they dream of.
The Rwandan government has the same mandate and 50 % of the government workers are female, Thus, the work that Right To Play does in the country supports this pretty incredible percentage and helping to continue to inspire younger generations.
Another focus of the work here is based on HIV protection. Today we were out in a field playing a game that helps to teach children about safe sex and the importance of condoms. A blue towel laid on the ground represents HIV and AIDS. Down the centre of the towel, acting as a bridge, is a row of alternating, meter-long white and blue sticks, which represent sexual activity and abstinence, respectively. On either side of the centre “bridge” is a row of yellow sticks that represent condom use. The goal of the game is to balance as you walk down the length of the centre bridge without touching the water – however, should you lose your balance, the yellow sticks on either side are there to help you regain your balance without falling in. Through the game, youth learn that while abstinence is the surest guard against HIV and AIDS, there are pressures that can throw you off balance and it emphasizes that, if sexually active, condoms are a necessary safeguard. It may sound like too much information for a child, but HIV is a reality here and safe sex is a necessity for survival in many areas. After each game there is always a period to ‘reflect-connect-apply’ (RCA), which means to reflect on the game, connect it to your life and then discuss how the lesson can be applied. Today, we had an entire discussion on how and why it is important to use condoms and the choices the youth were going to make when it came to sexual activity. They were all into it, it was amazing. These kids were all street kids and many of them orphans, the game was teaching them survival skills.
4. Our mission for this co-project is “We Build Peace.” In a place like Rwanda with its history of tribe on tribe violence, it’s easy to imagine that that could never even be possible. Obviously you think it is. Why?
It seems impossible but peace is indeed a reality here. As an outsider, it’s hard to understand how there could be peace but I do believe that the Right To Play programs help the young ones significantly. Games that bring kids together instead of building barriers, games that allow the release of anger or frustration and bring communities together. Right To Play is all about inclusion and breaking down walls of division, there is nothing like sport and play to instantly break down barriers and it is indeed peace building.
5. There are so many charities out there asking for people to help, to vote, to spread the word… What do you wish more people knew about Right To Play?
Because it really works. I have witnessed time and again the power of play to transform children living in the most dire situations of war, poverty and disease. It is the fundamental right of every child. I also ask the question to every parent: imagine your child with no access to play. Imagine if your child could never be engaged in play and laugh with joy, or if your kid could not be a kid and let go of all the pressures, stresses and confusion they may feel. The programs seem so simple yet so much work has gone into developing the Right To Play manuals. Right To Play has developed over 600 games and each has a lesson for the child to take away. The RCA I mentioned earlier is a fundamental part of the model in which children often learn life-saving lessons with each game. They gain confidence and feel pride when taking part. Many of these kids become junior leaders and ‘agents of change’ in their communities. It is pure magic and I wish I could transport Canadian parents to the field to see this magic first hand. I want more people to know about Right To Play because it works!!