It is rare to see a charity organization focusing not only on health or education, but sports, all at the same time. Well, the FUN Foundation does. Led by a remarkable Dutch woman, experienced in social, sports and humanitarian work, Irene or Coach, is making people smile in Aljamdu and shaping an enviable future for the poor community. In this interview with The Standard, Irene de Jong begins with a little bit about herself:
I am a Dutch woman aged 54 years and happily married with my husband Jos. We have 3 beloved children (adults) and 2 little adoring grandsons. We live in Baarn, a small village in the centre of the Netherlands.
After graduating from high school, I did two studies: physical education teacher and pedagogical family counsellor. I am an enthusiastic and active sports teacher for more than 32 years now! The last 10 years I work in my own village Baarn (both for the municipality and for childcare (after-school care) with children from 2-12 years old. I organise, coordinate and coach a lot of different sport activities for them like football, hockey, lacrosse, tennis, rugby, basketball, survival-run, athletics, etc.
Besides my paid work (5 days per week) I also am a passionate volunteer and secretary of the FUN (Football Unlimited Netherlands) Foundation which helps the people of Aljamdu in The Gambia by building a school, kitchen and water pump with solar energy system in their own village. Of course, we also give football training and provide the people with (football)clothes, balls, training materials etc.
Before I got involved with the FUN Foundation, I already did different volunteering projects by myself, always for children in need (orphans in Istanbul, schoolchildren in Morocco and a very special football project for girls in Himachal Pradesh, India. In India I have been 3 times to give football training to a big group of 75 girls aged 5-18 years. I also took care of donating these girls football clothes and training materials like balls and space markers.
All my life I have found it important that boys and girls have the same rights and opportunities, all over the world! Through my volunteering work I see an opportunity to give girls in The Gambia and India more self-confidence and skills. I love to do this and they give me a lot of energy and happiness in return
‘De Jong’ is a familiar name for Gambians, especially those who follow football and Dutch players. Do you feel the familiarity of your name in The Gambia or do you also resort to adopting a local name for easy identification?
Until now nobody in The Gambia has addressed me by my last name …. everyone knows me as “Irene” or as “Coach”.
How long have you been in The Gambia?
I have come to The Gambia now for two times: in October 2018 (2 weeks) and October 2019 (10 days) as a volunteer/secretary from the FUN Foundation. If we didn’t have a Covid-19 pandemic worldwide, I probably would have been in Aljamdu these days to attend the construction work on our school project!
Tell me three unique things that standout for you as far as this little country is concerned
Lovely and happy people; the children are very caring and kind to each other; even though people have little, they share everything generously with each other.
You’ve a charity called FUN Foundation. How did this name come about?
FUN stands for Football Unlimited Netherlands. We started 7 years ago as a foundation that wanted to bring FUN to the people of Aljamdu by providing football training sessions and bringing a lot of clothes, training materials, 2 goals etc. Furthermore, the FUN Foundation’s objective is to help improve the living conditions of children in the Gambian village of Aljamdu, with focus on education, healthcare and sports. The last few years we aim to realise this by building a primary school equipped with a kitchen, solar panels and a well. It is in this way that we hope to add to the joy and enrich the future of youths from one of Gambia’s poorest regions.
What is your role and contribution to the success of this foundation?
Upon my arrival in the spring of 2018, new energy was blown into the foundation and a goal-oriented approach to finding new ways to conclude our mission was introduced. The construction plans for the school were expanded to contain a kitchen, water well and solar panels. Cooperation was sought with Musa Saidy from the Gambian AYA Foundation as well as various charity organisations such as ‘Wilde Ganzen’ and ‘Join the Pipe’.
In my own words: I am very energetic and persistent and by being a powerful ambassador, I succeeded in collecting more funds and collaboration with necessary partners. That was a big step for FUN: starting to seek help and reach out to others instead of trying to do everything on our own.
We are just a small foundation with only a handful of unpaid volunteers so it costs us a lot of time and energy to achieve things. But I never give up and always keep looking for new opportunities and cooperation.
I am a great optimist who wants to make a difference to the world.
One of the difficulties of charities in The Gambia is funding. How do you accrue resources to keep it alive?
Finding sponsors and donors is extremely difficult! As I told you, that costs us a lot of time and energy. People outside Europe (especially in Africa) often think that Dutch people are all very rich here and that the money is there for the taking, but unfortunately that is a great fairy tale. We also have to work very hard to make ends meet and since there are so many good causes, it is difficult to connect donors to our own FUN Foundation. In recent years, we have fortunately found a number of loyal and committed sponsors in Holland who help us. In addition, there are of course our family, friends and colleagues who always donate a gift when we ask for it again…hahaha.
It appears FUN is for Aljamdu alone. What attracts you to that remote village?
The FUN Foundation was founded in 2013 by Ron Brouwer, current chairman of the foundation. Working as a representative in foreign countries, he was confronted with terrible poverty for the first time – the motive for action. Through Maarten Bax, former secretary of the FUN Foundation, Ron stumbled upon the village of Aljamdu in The Gambia. At the time, Maarten was supporting a Gambian boy from Aljamdu named Omar Kanteh. Aljamdu lies within one of the poorest regions in Gambia and with that in the world. Ron and Maarten realised that not only Omar was in need of backing, but the entire community of Aljamdu. For now, our complete school project is focused on Aljamdu.
How have the local people felt about your efforts to provide basic amenities for them?
They are VERY GLAD with our help!
I guess you’re planning to make FUN bigger, if you are, is there a possibility that you would extend it to other underprivileged communities?
Since we are only such a small foundation and we put a lot of time and energy into completing our school project, we will stick to this for the time being. But once all buildings are ready, we will of course remain closely involved with the school in Aljamdu for the coming years. I personally am thinking about supporting the teachers and children in giving gym/sports lessons several times for instance. That is where my strength lies and that is how I can be of service!
Education, healthcare and sport; these areas mean so much to you. How is FUN changing lives in Aljamdu vis-à-vis the above-mentioned?
We give the people (and especially the children) hope, fun and a future. Even more, we not only give them hope for a better future, but we actually help them with that by building the primary school with kitchen and the water pump with solar energy system and providing football training and tournaments.
When the project will be completed, the children will have both clean drinking water through the new well and a healthy hot meal at school every day. We are therefore still eagerly looking for news sponsors (perhaps also from The Gambia itself?) to be able to finance everything.
Are the locals buying into your ideas?
Yes, they are very enthusiastic and involved. We work closely with Musa Saidy from the AYA (Action for Youth Africa) Foundation who also lives (partly) in Aljamdu. He ensures that everything around the construction is properly arranged, such as all materials and builders.
In addition, Wally Baldeh is our contact person for FUN in Aljamdu for several years now. Besides being a very good teacher, he is also a committed football coach and therefore very closely associated.
Since media coverage is important in philanthropic work; are your activities well covered, apart from your website? If no, why?
Yes, besides our website we also use the social media like Facebook and Linkedin. Since I am very well known to the people in my hometown Baarn, because of all my work for the children and all my sports activities, the local press always pays a lot of attention to my sponsor actions and activities for FUN.
All charities, no matter how noble their work is, are facing difficulties. What have been your challenges so far?
Finding new sponsors and donors; finding new/sufficient volunteers for our foundation; finding enough time for our charity…. we all have a busy job and family life which makes it difficult to find a good balance between private and voluntary work for FUN; trying to keep up the courage even if it is sometimes very hard (because we are with so little people).
Is there anything you want to add?
I am very happy that you want to spend time and energy in giving a platform for our FUN Foundation in The Standard! From the Netherlands we put a lot of energy and effort into helping the people in Aljamdu and it is nice if there is also attention for this in The Gambia itself. I do that with all my love and dedication! When I am reunited with the children in the village and I see all their happy and smiling faces, I know what we are doing it for.
Now there is even another very important (extra) reason to return to Aljamdu as soon as the coronavirus pandemic has ended: at the end of December 2019, the third child of my friend Wally Baldeh was born and the girl is named after me: how wonderful! I am the very proud grandmother of a sweet little girl in Aljamdu …. what more could you want?
Since we are only such a small foundation and we put a lot of time and energy into completing our school project, we will stick to this for the time being. But once all buildings are ready, we will of course remain closely involved with the school in Aljamdu for the coming years. I