With a designation as “ball boy”, 19-year-old Mandeep Singh knew exactly what he had to do – keep his eyes focused on the ongoing game so “there are at least two footballs available for every match”. He took this responsibility so seriously that he still talks about it with conviction even though several days has passed since he volunteered at a tournament organised by ‘The Football Link’.

Mandeep, along with others like Robin Arya and Aditi Sabarwal, was a volunteer from Special Olympics Bharat (SOB) at the recent International Football Festival held at the Capital’s Thyagaraj Stadium. The stream of volunteers who have knocked at the doors of SOB -- a movement that uses sports as a catalyst to transform the lives of children and adults with intellectual disability -- sparked the idea of flipping volunteering on its head.

“We have had a lot of people who have been interested in volunteering with us and we thought why not flip this around? Why don’t our children participate as volunteers in a mainstream event when they are equally capable of doing so?” says SOB’s Resource Mobilisation Director Rati Misra.

With the football festival held between October 6 and 13 attracting over 5,000 participants, it could not get more mainstream. “Participating in this event expanded their eco-system and did not limit it to the disability sector or the environs of a special school,” she says.

Volunteering did expand their world with 24-year-old Aditi, a basketball player, now thinking about taking up football. “I really enjoyed volunteering at the festival. We kicked the ball with the other participants in between the matches,” she says, adding, “Perhaps I will also start training in football now.”

Since the weather was still sultry, volunteers had to spend long hours under the sun, a task they performed with ease.

“During the day, it was quite hot but the volunteers did a great job helping out wherever they could. Be it as ball boys, at the registration desks or giving teams directions to get to places,” says The Football Link assistant general manager Achintya Bhadauria. “None of the participants even noticed that some of the volunteers were differently-abled.”

The concluding day of the festival even saw SOB’s volunteers play a friendly match. “Some of our athletes were so good that we thought about forming a proper team for next year’s festival,” says Ms. Misra.

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