Can field hockey fight poverty? This former goalie makes it her mission

By Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie, espnW March 06, 2015

Luz Amuchastegui doesn’t mince words when she describes her mission in life: “I want to end poverty in Argentina.”

Amuchastegui, a former field hockey goalie who made it to the club system in Argentina but never quite to the national stage, is now a coach, mentor and programs director for El Desafío Foundation, an NGO in her hometown of Rosario, Argentina.

El Desafío, or “The Challenge,” was founded in 2001 by Luz’s onetime goalie trainer Mario Raimondi in the wake of a nationwide financial crisis that left poverty, violence and corruption in its wake. A 2010 UNICEF report said about 29 percent of Argentinian children live below the poverty line. El Desafío uses social programs in art, dance, professional skills and, yes, sports, to teach them life skills and help to break the cycle.

For her work, the 31-year-old Amuchastegui was chosen to be a member of the 2013 Global Sports Mentoring Program. We caught up with her to find out more about her organization and her mission.

espnW: What did sports mean to you growing up?

Luz Amuchastegui: Most girls didn’t play sports when I was young. There were only a few schools and clubs, and in my school, field hockey was the sport we played, so that’s why I did it. I loved it. It was a place I could be myself. …

I think what I loved about the goalie position was how high the bar was in terms of not settling. It was that rush of saying I could determine whether we lose. Not whether we win, but whether we lose. It was up to me not to lose a game. That’s what got stuck with me.

espnW: How did that lead you to El Desafío?

LA: Mario was only my coach for one year, but after that we continued to be friends and stay in touch. In 2001, after the big crisis, he was living in the Netherlands training in field hockey there, and he decided to do something to help the country. He organized a field hockey event to raise, at that point, food for people who had no food, and I was a part of it. But afterwards we were like, OK, we’re not solving the big picture here. We’re putting a Band-Aid on a huge problem. That’s how El Desafío started, as a solution to the huge problem of poverty and corruption in Argentina.

In the beginning it was just eight kids and I was working as a volunteer while studying and playing field hockey. In 2007 I decided to make a real commitment and start working with El Desafío more officially, though still on a volunteer basis since I was working in human resources for General Motors. Then, in 2010, I decided to quit my “real job” as I called it, and went to work together with Mario to train goalkeepers and make El Desafío grow. At that point it was 30 kids and five programs. This year we’re looking at 130 kids and 17 programs.

espnW: So how do sports work into your dream of ending poverty?

LA: In El Desafío we work with young kids and their families living in extreme poverty conditions, which means not having access to basic needs, health care, nutrition — those are the situations I see every day. Most families deal with violence and death in a way that is so common to them. At some point it becomes natural. The amount of drugs around the neighborhoods and the lack of vision and opportunities is suffocating. We have free university, yet people don’t even see it as a choice. …

Sports gives you a vision, I think. Sports allows you to understand that if you work hard enough you will see the results. Once you understand that through sports you can accomplish things on an individual basis, the person can make plans for his or her life, defining who they want to be in life. It’s not just things like going to university, but even making choices for themselves and knowing how to accomplish them. Through sports you can also work to manage conflict resolution and violence.

espnW: Speaking of girls and athletics, what are the opportunities — and challenges — for female athletes in Argentina?

LA: There are lots of opportunities to play sports. That’s a fact. Field hockey used to be just for a few people because with all the equipment it’s an expensive sport. But now it’s open to everyone. Between Las Leonas [the Argentinian national field hockey team that has been in five World Cup finals and won the title in 2002 and 2010] and Luciana Aymar [a national team player from Rosario] who was elected eight times as the best hockey player in the world, the sport is really popular. The government has opened lots of fields and supported girls going into it. It’s all about girls in field hockey in Argentina.

The thing is once they get there, the coaches are not fully aware or prepared to deal with girls in terms of how they need to be treated and how to engage them. For boys, everyone wants to be a soccer player and there’s lots of money there. For girls, we don’t have the same opportunity through sports. It’s not a way of getting into university or making a living. So it has to be fun. You need to set the bar high so it keeps being engaging. …

We still deal with a lot of stereotypes of girls having to be housewives, having to take care of younger siblings, wanting to become moms by the age of 15, and not seeing opportunities other than having a baby and repeating the same that their mom did. …

That’s the situation we deal with when the girls come in. Through sports we try to develop their athletic mindset so they can start seeing their body as a tool. We help them achieve things so that they can dream of being other stuff. That way we avoid teenage pregnancy. We talk about sexuality, disease prevention and especially about how they can be whoever they want to be. Dream big and make plans on how to achieve those dreams.

espnW: What are you most proud of accomplishing in your work with El Desafío?

LA: We don’t have a big company backing us up, or resources to depend on, so everything we’ve done has been step by step. … Every time I see kids who say hi and tell me how they’re doing, I realize I’ve made an impact in their lives. Those small changes in personalities, I know those kids are going to have a different life than if El Desafio hadn’t been there.

This job for me is a way of living. I probably spend too much time working and could have a better work-life balance, but I love what I do so in that sense it’s a lifestyle. I would make the same decisions a hundred times over.

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