LONDON (Reuters) - Carrying bags of cement and water purifiers up a Guatemalan hillside in the name of charity makes soccer training seem easy, says England international Shaun Wright-Phillips who has been helping out in the Central American country.
A week ago the 26-year-old midfielder moved from Chelsea to Manchester City, whose new investors, Abu Dhabi United Group, plan to turn the club into one of the biggest in the world.
Wright-Phillips, who moved in a deal reportedly worth nine million pounds ($16 million), has long-term plans for his charity work in Guatemala.
“I’ll be involved for the rest of my life,” he told Reuters at the start of a fundraising Harley Davidson motorcycle ride in Chelsea last month.
“The smiles and the happiness on the kids’ faces keep me going back there. It’s a lovely country and I’d never stop going back.”
Since learning of the British-based charity Education for the Children Foundation (EFTC) in 2007, Wright-Phillips has visited Guatemala twice and sees the opportunity for a lasting relationship.
This will come as good news to the foundation as they strive to improve the situation in Guatemala, where only five per cent of children enter secondary education.
In 36 years of civil war up to 1996, almost 250,000 Guatemalans disappeared or were killed. The country has been reeling ever since, and many youngsters suffering psychological problems are forced to abandon school just to survive.
Wright-Phillips was attracted to Guatemala after he was shown what the proceeds from one of his shirt auctions were going towards.
“When I saw the DVD I really wanted to get over there and help in all the ways I possibly could,” he said, flanked by two young Guatemalans who are in England on an EFTC-sponsored scholarship program.
One of the visitors, Carlos Bacajol Hernandez, had to cope with his mother’s death and the murder of his father when he was growing up. His 14-member family live in a house the size of a living room and the children have had to pay for their own education.
Now 24, he has just completed his school studies six years behind schedule and faces seven more years of studying to become a lawyer when he returns to his homeland later this year.
“I am very proud to be here today,” Bacajol Hernandez said in halting English. “I think Shaun is a very good person. He helps a lot to the children from Guatemala.”
EFTC founder David McKee, who has been housing Bacajol Hernandez in the central English city of Nottingham since he arrived in February, agrees.
“Shaun’s great. He gets his hands dirty,” said McKee. “He said carrying cement bags up a hillside (to help build a house) was the hardest thing he’s ever done and pre-season training was a doddle after that.
“When he goes over there the country stops. It’s a real buzz for the children,” he added.
This was backed up by Patty Castillo, principal at Escuela Proyecto La Esperanza, a primary school funded by the EFTC in a poor area an hour from the capital, Guatemala City.
“When he comes he motivates our students. The help that he brings is so important,” she told Reuters by telephone.
Guatemala is mad about soccer and one of the school’s teachers said the sport was a great unifier when Wright-Phillips visited this year.
“The kids loved him as soon as he shared his football skills with them,” Osmar Santos said.
Wright-Phillips, son of former England international Ian Wright, believes footballers, often criticized for their extravagant lifestyles, do plenty to help good causes.
“I know there are a lot of players that help out in the best ways they can with charities. People just aren’t made aware of it,” he said.
Editing by Clare Fallon