In 2005 Spirit of Soccer began operations in Battambang province, northern Cambodia, where an estimated 450 children were being killed every year by landmines and ERW. Cambodia is still struggling to cope with the legacy of the war in neighboring Vietnam, a devastating civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime. It is estimated that there are more than six million landmines littering Cambodia's border with Thailand. So common are mines in Cambodia that they are now used for fishing, to protect private property and even to settle private disputes.
As a consequence of the Khmer Rouge's campaign to wipe out intellectuals and educated workers, over 70% of Cambodia's population now make their living from subsistence farming. Most children aren't injured by mines but by ERW like grenades or artillery shells set off as an adult farms the land. As a result, Cambodia suffers from one of the highest physical disability rates in the world, with many victims plunged into economic hardship as a result of their injuries.
Spirit of Soccer operates in the most mine-polluted parts of the country, including the infamous K5 minebelt where an estimated three million landmines were laid by 100,000 forced labourers, many of whom died of exhaustion. Since the organization began operating, child casualties in these regions have decreased by 50% according to the Cambodian Mine Victim Information Service.
"The children here react more enthusiastically to the messages than if we just delivered them in the classroom" says Stephen Sonderman, Spirit of Soccer's Country Manager for Cambodia. "They get a chance to run around and burn off some energy before they sit down for an MRE session. They look up to the coaches who are delivering the messages because those same coaches just helped them learn about soccer - which is what they all love".
"We develop relationships with the local Ministries for Education and Sport and the local Football Associations to train coaches and PE teachers to deliver our messages" says Spirit of Soccer Director and Founder Scott Lee. "These community role models run soccer activities in their local areas and then spend time at the end of the sessions passing on life-saving information about landmines, how to avoid them and which areas to keep away from". So far, over 46,000 children from over 238 schools located in heavily-mined communities have received Mine Risk Education from Spirit of Soccer's team of dedicated and courageous coaches.
In 2010 Spirit of Soccer implemented a Sports Diplomacy / Law Enforcement program in Cambodia, training local police in soccer coaching, Mine Risk Education and Drug Risk Education, predominantly targeting Muslim communities. This program has been expanded into three provinces and Spirit of Soccer currently employs 18 local police officers to work on the program which has reached 12,000 children to date.