Leah Williamson | In my own words
Dream big. That’s something every girl should be able to do.
It’s what my hero, Kelly Smith, once wrote on a picture that she gave to me when I was younger, and something that has stayed with me ever since. By dreaming big, I’ve been able to become a professional footballer and have been given opportunities that I never thought I’d have.
Recently, one of those opportunities was to visit the Coaching For Life programme in Jakarta, Indonesia, with Save the Children and The Arsenal Foundation.
The first people I met when I arrived in Jakarta were the Save the Children team. We can often forget just how much they do for the people who rely on them – and they really do rely on them.
A street in Jakarta, Indonesia
The Coaching For Life programme is unrivalled. Seriously, no other footballs clubs are doing anything like it. Of course I’ve visited the Arsenal Hub a couple of times and I’ve seen the work that Arsenal in the Community do, but going away with the Foundation and seeing that similar impact in a completely different setting was massive.
We don't turn up, deliver two days of coaching and then hope they'll be fine after that. We go in there, we take our coaches who live in those areas for two months and dedicate their lives to sharing their skills with coaches out there so they can best teach the children.
I think that's what makes this programme so unrivalled and it’s why there's a real north London feel to Jakarta, which is honestly ridiculous to think of if you've ever visited the two places, but it's true. Let me explain why…
From the outside, Coaching For Life to some could look just like a football session but in reality it’s a child protection programme, which uses football as a way to engage children and deliver skills they need to help cope with life off the pitch. Life is pretty tough for some of the girls I met in Jakarta and this programme helps them learn about things like confidence, resilience and communication. The best part of all of this, is that they don’t even realise that it’s happening! They see it as just a place to go and have fun, but it’s so much more than that. Save the Children and the Arsenal Foundation have got the perfect balance.
A Coaching For Life student poses in Jakarta's 'oasis in the middle of a concrete jungle'
As well as the programme and the pitch, Save the Children and The Arsenal Foundation have made the area around the pitch so special. It's not just there for the football, it's also space for people to come together outside of their homes. Most people end up in the streets because that's the only space that they have. To have this hub, to have this green space, to have this oasis in such a cramped area – that’s what makes it feel like this Arsenal presence.
It's like The Hub we have here by Emirates Stadium, which is home to Arsenal in the Community. You've got this big Emirates Stadium and this community hub right in the middle of real life. It's somewhere people can go to feel special, to feel that someone cares about them. That's the main thing that links the two places together, which I think is really special.
I think what I learned most or what I realised the most about the programme when I got there is that you hear Coaching For Life and you just think football. But when you speak to the girls about the football, you talk to them about what they get from the sessions and they don't necessarily talk about the football. It's about the whole package that comes with it: the confidence, the resilience and the self-belief that they're taught.
In one of the sessions we actually did an exercise about being positive about ourselves and telling each other what we were good at. I think that really hit home to me. It's so much more than football. Football's just the common ground that can bring us together. It's so powerful. The power of football is something that I learned in terms of seeing it transferred.
Coaching For Life taught Leah a lot about herself too
It's about more than that, Coaching For Life. It's about genuinely preparing these girls for life instead of just on the pitch.
I think they understand that, too. The thing that struck me most about the girls involved in the programme is just how much they loved it. Growing up in England, even in PE, you would get fewer and fewer girls joining in each work because it was almost a chore to go out and do sport. But these girls in Jakarta absolutely loved it.
It's their one time that they get to let their hair down and have a good time. Considering the circumstances that most of them have come from and the stigma around girls playing football, for them to go out there and take their place on the pitch that they deserve, and have all the boys watching on the outside... I think that was pretty special for me and it's what will live with me the most.
They just didn't care, they did what they wanted to do and they left all the social expectations of being a girl at the door to just go out and have a good time by being themselves. I loved how much they loved the programme and I definitely think when I look back on growing up in England, we maybe took some things for granted that they don't.
Leah joins in wtih a Coaching For Life session
Since I've come back, I've not taken a single time I've kicked the ball on a football pitch for granted. But naturally, we can't all be taught not to take things for granted in that way. I was very privileged to have that experience to change my perception, but now 100 per cent I want to have as much fun as I was having on the pitch with those girls.
That’s what I took from it and I hope the girls learned something from me being there, too. I was there to show them that they can do what they want, that times are changing and that I'm living proof of these changed times. Ten years ago I couldn't be in the position I'm in now. Even five years ago is a stretch, but now I'm a professional football and it's available because of women who have fought before me.
One of the young girls I met was called Diah and she is probably one of the best people I've ever met. She is so strong yet so unaware of how strong she is. She talked to me about how much of a role model I am to her and how strong I was, and that's what she wanted to be. But actually, she doesn't realise that she's 10 times stronger than me already.
She was just an incredible young woman for everything that she juggles and balances in her life. She wakes up early, has to go to the shop to get stuff for her stall that she then runs after school, outside of her house to support her family. She then finds time to go to the pitch and take that time for herself, which has made me so happy. That makes me so proud of the project because it's the only time that week that she probably does that.
Diah runs a stall to support her family
I had this conversation with her where she was telling me about her schedule and she didn't even mention that she was babysitting in the evenings as well to make a bit more money and support her family further. That just shows what kind of a person she is.
She didn't see any of it as abnormal, she just saw it as her responsibility and that's what she had to do. Her strength is something that will stay with me for a long, long time.
Just seeing Diah running around with her friends on the pitch, it showed me just how much the Coaching For Life programme is helping her.
Just to be welcomed into the Arsenal family is really special to her, and to have people look after her is huge. She does a lot of looking after others when she's at home, so I think people that there are concerned about her wellbeing or concerned about the person that she's trying to be.
When Leah met Diah: the duo walk the streets of Jakarta
I like to think that's helping her become more resilient and become more confident in herself. It's showing her that she can break down the boundaries that she wants to. She actually went to visit the deputy minister to fight for change and make them aware of the problem that is child labour in her area, as well as the homeless children who are then forced into child labour.
Considering what Diah goes through on a daily basis, to have time to think about other people just shows the person she is. Going to the pitches and going to the programme, and to have people care for her and teach her things... she's sort of finding her own way in the world but actually she's a child and should be given the support she needs to be the best person she can be.
She knew I was a footballer and she would love to grow up to a be a footballer herself. I've no doubt that she'll make that happen to a certain degree, given how feisty she was on the pitch. But speaking to Diah, whenever she spoke to me about me, she never once mentioned that I was a good footballer.
Instead it was all about being successful and she saw success as me being strong for my family, even though my situation is not the same as hers. The term 'role model' goes from being a footballer and showing people that I've made it and they can make it as a football too, to the complete other end of the spectrum of just caring about people. By showing her that I cared for her, I cared for my family and that I was a strong person for them who fights for what I believe in, that mattered to Diah so much more.
Diah welcomes Leah into her home
I suppose it's much more relatable to her, so I think it highlighted the fact that just being a footballer is not enough. You have to be a good person as well, and that can normally have a lot more of an effect on a person.
We actually bonded one day when she found out that my parents had separated and so had hers. It almost made me feel guilty because she really latched onto it and it made us seem alike, when in reality she's the one who's working to support her family because her dad's left. That's not the case for me and I'm very lucky that it hasn't had a large impact on my life.
The biggest piece of advice that we shared was just to be true to who you are an fight for what you believe in, and to focus on herself. I tried to tell her that she needs to focus on herself and that she needs to know that she doesn't have the weight of the world on her shoulders all the time, that it's OK to be a kid.
In return, the advice she gave me without even knowing it is to not take things for granted and to be strong for other people. We're often so self-absorbed that we often forget to think about others. She just is the complete opposite to that because she thinks about nothing but other people.
Leah can't believe how selfless Diah is
Although she didn't realise that she was the one giving advice, she probably taught me more than she learned from me.
When I sat down with Diah in her house, I took a timeline of my time here at Arsenal in photos. There was one particular photo, the mixed-squad photo with the men's team, which was something that she related to because she plays with the boys and doesn't care what people say about it.
Her friends will tell her she's being showy but she's not, she's just doing her thing and she liked to see that we were bold enough to stand alongside the men's team, just like she is down on the pitch.
One of the other ones that really stood out was a picture of me and my mum, signing my contract here. Diah's mum is her hero and someone she really looks up to, and they have a really close bond. That's obviously something me and my mum share too, so that was really nice for her to let me in on that. We had a nice conversation about both of our mums.
I told her she could keep one of the photos if she wanted to, and the one she picked was me with a massive grin and my fists clenched, running down the steps at Wembley after we'd just won the FA Cup. Kelly's actually in the background, so I thought about the message she wrote to me all those years ago and knew there was only one thing I could write on this picture for Diah.
Dream big: Leah signs a photo for Diah
I didn't know whether she was going to pick the picture of me and my mum or that one, but I think with the fight that she has in her, I always knew she was going to go for that one. It's funny because Kelly was one of my idols because she was a fighter, and that's something I try to replicate on the pitch, and it's something that Diah absolutely personifies off it.
It was a nice moment to share, to sort of let her into my life and show her how much I learned about her as well. Hopefully, even just a little message on a picture will be enough to remind her of the conversations we had, and hopefully inspire her with the journey I've been on for years to come.
As for me… well, I’ll never forget that trip. It was so emotional and difficult to process what these young girls go through everyday but seeing how much they appreciate the programme just highlights how much we take for granted over here.
Now that I’ve seen it first-hand, I can’t be passive any more. That’s the biggest thing for me, that it’s made me active in convincing people that they need to get on board to help other people in the same way that the programme’s helping the girls out there.
If sharing my experience of being out there is enough to do that, then that's what I'll do. The biggest change in me is to realise that you think you're being understanding, but actually we're all being very passive and living our lives knowing that it all goes on.
That's fine, but I just think I've been given this massive opportunity to go out there and see how they live, to really get into their lives and understand the way they think and feel. It's something I can definitely use to help people over here gain a better understanding of why every girl, no matter where she lives, deserves to dream big.
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