Gode Katembo says his love of soccer helped him stay away from bad company while he was growing up. Katembo spent time playing for St. Charles and Portage Trails teams, before playing at College and University level for Red River and Canadian Mennonite University, respectively.
Originally from the Republic of the Congo, Katembo grew up on Langside street in the West End. While his mom was working multiple jobs to provide for her family, Katembo recognizes he could easily have slipped through the cracks and spent time with bad company - something he sees happen frequently to the youth he’s trying to mentor.
“Many of my peers who were not in sports that I remember growing up in the same neighborhood with, many of them turned to joining wrong groups just because they're seeking a sense of belonging,” Katembo said. “But also… trying to break into a new culture or making friends can be difficult as a newcomer.”
“I didn't just want to talk about it. I wanted to do something about it.”
Katembo decided to start his own initiative after spending time volunteering with other inner-city sports for youth programs. Eventually with places like the Youth for Christ center, he felt places didn’t understand how important soccer was to their target audience.
Sports Without Boundaries (formerly Free to Play) is Katembo’s attempt to guide young new Canadians down the path he was able to travel. Started in 2019, Katembo has seen youth in his program get scholarships to post-secondary institutions thanks to his guidance.
Through the winter, Katembo estimates about 50 inner-city youth regularly attend Sports Without Boundaries sessions between their two different age groups. However, Katembo’s main age demographic focus currently is on youth ages around 18-21.
“all the inner city programs… Especially [those] that are serving newcomers, all of these programs end at the age of 18, Katembo said. “And that's a serious problem because many of these kids at the age of 18 have not developed to be responsible enough to know what they're doing. So even though they're 18, nobody's still there to mentor them or to guide them.”
Katembo thinks this has a direct impact on crime rates in the inner city: “Some of these kids, when they turn 18, they feel they're free. They think, they know what they're doing.”
“Many of them say well, I've graduated from high school, I don't have nobody else to tell me what to do. So what? They end up hanging out with friends. They don't have jobs. Guess what? They end up on the street,” Katembo said. “They're young, they don't know any better. So they end up joining crime groups.”
Many of the youth Katembo sees come through his programs would simply not have enough money to attend any other high-level soccer programs in the city. Along with income being a common barrier, an aspect of youth sport that Katembo says many places don’t take into consideration is the barriers families face with filling out paperwork to get additional help funding their kids in sport.
“There's a barrier to access that good information. There's a barrier of accessing quality programs. There's so many layers to it,” Katembo said. “I wish these forms could make it easier and simpler so that these parents actually can utilize or tap into those resources that are there.”
Katembo hopes that along with setting up their futures, his programs are also helping their participants holistically.
“The black community and immigrants, where we come from, you can't tell your dad you're depressed," Katembo said. “They tell you ‘you have food, you have shelter. What are you depressed about?’ It's not in our vocabulary, but it's a serious thing that they're going through.”
“There is so much that's needed and there are other wonderful programs, organizations that are doing something about it, but also there’s just still more.
If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about Sports Without Boundaries, visit their Instagram page at @swb.officiel.
Daniel McIntyre-Ridd, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Leaf