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Redouan El Yaakoubi: "We're making a difference in the lives of children and their parents"

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Redouan El Yaakoubi

Redouan El Yaakoubi won the FIFPRO Player Activist Award for his work supporting children who are growing up in a challenging environment. Through his foundation Durf te Dromen (Dare to Dream), the Excelsior Rotterdam captain is helping more than 1,000 children.

When I went to gymnasium (the highest level of secondary school in the Netherlands), I noticed that many children from ethnic minority backgrounds were dropping out. I simply couldn’t believe that this was caused by a lack of intelligence or talent.

Through time, I realised that there were also problems in elementary schools. So many kids were unable to reach their potential. This was caused mainly by external factors. For example, parents were not as involved with their upbringing or education because they were working, they didn’t know the school system, or they lacked the financial means to support.

I grew up in a neighbourhood in Utrecht where most people were not white. At elementary school, we had only one Dutch girl in our class. All other kids were Moroccan, Turkish, Afghan, you name it.

However, when I entered secondary school, I was the only person of Moroccan descent. I came from a different culture. I was used to solving my problems differently and was short-tempered. A lot of teachers couldn’t deal with that.

All those years, I didn’t feel as if I could be myself or that people understood me. I had to adjust. I suffered from an identity crisis, but in the end, I managed to graduate.

I couldn’t talk about it with my parents, as they didn’t know the system. In my family, I was the only one who went to the most advanced level at secondary school.

When I was 16-years old, I started doing volunteer work in my neighbourhood, mostly dealing with youths, and raising funds for the Red Cross or Salvation Army. After a couple of years, I considered starting my own initiative. I wanted to do something for all those children who were experiencing the same things I had experienced.  

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Credit: Redouan El Yaakoubi

I wanted to offer them a different perspective and wanted to show that, with the right approach, they can develop their talent and they can graduate.

We launched the Dare to Dream Foundation in 2020. I created the program myself, based on my experiences growing up. It took me three years.

The Dare to Dream program is based on three pillars. I looked at my own parenting: what did I miss, and what was important for my upbringing? I also looked at my secondary school period: what was lacking, what did I need to feel more involved? And finally, I considered the environment: what are the circumstances in the neighbourhood?

The next step was to develop the concept in more detail. I talked with a lot of people, organisations, municipalities, experts and professors. I think the program we built is unique in the Netherlands. We offer more than extracurricular education. It is not only about performing, but also about investing in personal development, their social emotional development.

We had pupils coming to us who lacked confidence, were afraid to speak or unable to express themselves. And now, I see that they have not only improved their maths and spelling scores, but they have also developed their personality.

We started with 40 children, and I was curious how things would work out. Then 40 became 100 and then things went fast. More children joined … I am not the best person when it comes to saying no. After three months, we needed a new location.

Now, two years on, we have six locations and over a thousand kids in our program. All through word of mouth from parents, or kids telling their friends.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we offer further training for kids from elementary and secondary schools. On Thursdays, we have English classes, as this is a super important language. On Sundays, we have our talent-development program that includes occupational orientation and other activities.

We visited the city council, as part of our debate class. We went to the forest with a forest ranger. We did many sports they didn’t know yet, such as archery instead of football or kick boxing.

For the kids, our foundation is fun.

We have a group of around 80 passionate volunteers, who are also developing themselves. People who initially didn’t dare speak to a class are now studying to become teachers. 

“We had pupils coming to us who lacked confidence, were afraid to speak or unable to express themselves. And now, I see that they have not only improved their maths and spelling scores, but they have also developed their personality. ”

I believe in this concept, and I dedicate a lot of time to it, maybe a little too much. As the director, I am managing a lot, but I also enjoy talking with children in our program.

Today, my coach asked me during a break at the club: 'Working for your foundation again?'

I am not the person to spend two hours playing cards in between training. I’d rather use my time to check emails or do other useful things. You know, I still have to answer 70 mails, and I missed 12 calls today…

Maybe this is hurting my career as a professional footballer. Maybe I should rest or train more, to make the most of my playing career. However, this program also has a positive effect on my development as a person and as a player. I have become a leader, gained experience in organising different people, and that helped me with being the captain at my club.

I enjoy this work. We have a group of passionate and energetic volunteers, and we are making a difference in the lives of children and their parents. One of the things I hope, is that we can take this initiative nationwide. Our program is called Dare to Dream for a reason.