OV coach brings hope to hundreds

PITTSFORD — The story of underprivileged Cambodian children playing organized soccer on a dusty field really starts with a letter English native Gary Hodder — now the Otter Valley Union High School field hockey coach and assistant director of Pittsford’s Camp Sangamon — wrote back in 1990 to an American embassy.
Through that letter Hodder, now 45, found summer work at Camp Sangamon while working the rest of the year organizing sports programs in England. Through the camp’s director, Mike Byrom, Hodder eventually traveled to Cambodia and discovered the need that a youth soccer league could meet.
“I enjoyed my government job in the U.K., but I was looking to do something else, more rewarding is that cliché,” Hodder said. “And he said what you can do is come over to Cambodia and take a look around, see what you think, but there’s lots of stuff you can do with the skills you’ve got. There are lots of orphanages and children’s centers that don’t have anything like what you do.”
Hodder learned quickly what he could do with a sport that requires little more than a ball and a field.
“What the kids really wanted when I talked to them is they wanted to play, they wanted to be a team, they wanted to play against other kids in some sort of organization,” he said.
Through Byrom, Hodder also met there another U.K. native, Jim Elliot, the founder of Globalteer, a nonprofit that supports community-building and environmental projects in the developing world, several near Siem Reap in Cambodia. Globalteer became a key backer of the Siem Reap Junior Soccer League.
Now, hundreds of boys and girls from eight schools, children’s centers or orphanages have played on one of 22 co-ed teams in three different age levels in the league, which will shortly enter its third season under Hodder’s guidance. The annual budget, not including Globalteer’s provision of lodging and office space for Hodder and his Cambodian helpers, is $2,500.
The league provides several central benefits to the kids, who range from about age 10 to 16. Hodder said almost all of the centers serve remote farming villages. Adult residents often have never left the villages except to tend their fields. The league allows their children to see more of the world.
“Some of those kids have never been in town. They live 20 miles outside of town in the edge of the jungle,” Hodder said. “And they don’t care about the result (of games) … they laugh and joke until the end. But they get to interact with other kids, and they don’t get to do that normally … You look around and there are kids in their black and pink T-shirts mixing with kids in the green (shirts), laughing and kicking the ball together.”
That isolation has typically extended to the village’s schools and centers, too, Hodder said. But because of the league the organizations have established ties and are organizing events outside of the 10 Sundays their teams gather to play seven-on-seven soccer.
A central problem, Hodder said, is that Cambodia has yet to recover from the murderous late-1970s Khmer Rouge regime, when an estimated one-fifth of the nation’s population perished — up to 2.5 million people. Organization remains a challenge in the troubled country.
“The centers are now interacting with each other,” Hodder said. “Which has been tremendous really, over something so simple. It’s not rocket science. It takes a little bit of organization, which Cambodia is still lacking … Most of the intellectuals were taken out. All that’s left was uneducated, village farming communities. So there’s still a big vacuum for organization skills.”
Back in 1990, Hodder marketed his skill set to land his job at Sangamon. As well as coaching (Hodder is a qualified coach for cricket, fencing, archery, basketball and badminton, as well as soccer, and his OV field hockey teams have won 33 games in three years), he is an agricultural college graduate.
The embassy wrote back to Hodder and suggested applying to be a camp counselor. So he approached Sangamon, which proved to be a fit because of its small farm.
“Because of my agricultural background, I got picked, and loved it, and went back the next year,” he said.
Hodder has worked off and on at Sangamon, taking time also to organize rural sports programs in England. More recently, he has returned steadily to Sangamon and has spent 15 summers there in all.
Sangamon’s programs end in August, a schedule that has allowed Hodder to coach high school fall sports. He coached varsity boys’ soccer at Mount St. Joseph in Rutland from 2002 to 2004, in 2008 coached middle school girls’ soccer at OV, and in 2009 took over OV’s field hockey program.
Hodder also played soccer at what he called a respectable level in England. That experience informed his coaching philosophy.
“I played quite a high standard of soccer, higher than I should have done if you looked at me individually. But I had coaches, especially later in my career, who saw I could do things in the team that were important. There were better individual players than me who sat on the bench,” he said. “That’s the way I run my teams.”
Hodder said the benefits of participation in sport and the value of being part of a team are what drive him to coach, and to volunteer his time in Cambodia.
“I had a fantastic email yesterday from a parent about one of the young ladies I’ve been working with” at OV, Hodder said. “And (it was) not about just the field hockey, but how it’s improved her as a person, in her mother’s view.”
He has sensed the same reward in Cambodia. One small center operates near the Globalteer hotel that houses Hodder and volunteers for other Globalteer projects clustered in the area. Two years ago, Hodder persuaded enough of the center’s mostly female students to field a team with just one boy. He believed it was particularly important to reach teen girls.
“In Cambodian society, girls are not meant to play a sport … their path is homemaker,” he said. “So I was very keen to get girls involved, and a lot of people were saying can you do something for the teenage girls, they really want to do things, but there isn’t anything for them.”
The team members spoke as a group to Hodder after their final match.
“They really loved playing, laughed to the end, lost every single game they played,” he said. “But they improved. I went and worked with them, and they got some basic skills. And the big thing for them was scoring a goal, and they got one eventually. But they actually came to me after the first season, and their interpreter spoke to me, and it wasn’t so much about how much they loved playing the game, but they thanked me for allowing them to do something different.”
To get the project going the first winter, in 2009, Hodder, Byrom and other friends raised the cash, and Hodder headed over.
“The first year I put some of my own money in, and the camp put some money in, and some friends,” he said. “I took $2,000 with me to do this … But money goes a lot farther out there. It was quite a lot of money.”
Globalteer’s support, which has included a small contribution toward living expenses as well as housing, has eased the crunch, and the second-year budget rose to $2,500.
Hodder points out gratefully that Sangamon provides him in the summer with housing and a car, making it possible for him and his fiancée, Gina, to afford the effort.
“We live very frugally,” Hodder said. “We don’t have any debts. We don’t have a mortgage to pay … We have a lot of people who support us in many different ways in what we do. We’re very lucky. And they believe in what we do.”
But from the start, Hodder saw his work in Siem Reap as a three-year commitment, in part because of personal and financial reasons. He and Gina will return to England to marry in September and then find work; his field hockey career at OV is also over.
“We’re not trying to make ourselves out to be heroes or anything, because we live all right, especially when you see some of the situations these people live in. We have a budget per day that your average rural Cambodian family would live a month on,” he said. “But we are at a stage now where this is the last year I’m going to be able to afford to do it.”
With that in mind, Hodder all along has groomed those who must sustain the league moving forward. A combination of Cambodians and Globalteer staff will have to carry on.
“Globalteer will come in … and be the focus for fund-raising,” Hodder said. “But the day-to-day running would all be Khmer locals … and I’ve got four or five lads over the last two years who have been helping referee, helping coach, getting involved in the organizational side of things. They’re going to have to do it.”
Hodder believes they can succeed, but his experience in rural sports in England has taught him to be realistic.
“Whenever you hand something over to somebody else … you’re always risking that it might not work out,” Hodder said. “I’ve had projects that worked very well and are still running to this day, six or seven years on. And I’ve had projects that I thought were great projects, that I thought were well-organized, that folded within six months of me leaving.”
Even if the league eventually is lost in the dust of its rented field, Hodder believes the children’s centers are now better linked — and the league will have made a difference for some of the children who piled in the back of battered trucks wearing matching shirts to meet new people and learn about life outside their tiny villages and the value of being part of a team.
“I was always being told when I was doing things, ‘But where does it lead, Gary?’” he said. “And I said, ‘Well, it might not lead to anything.’ ‘Yeah, but why are you doing it then?’ And I said, ‘Because they’re getting nothing right now.’”
More information about Globalteer and the Siem Reap Junior Soccer League is available at www.globalteer.org; there is a “Soccer League” tab on the left side of the page. There is a donation page at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/soccerleague.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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