By: Zoe Noakes, with field reporting by Kevin Nyakwada, Hutama Limarta, Nico Benalcazar, and Alejandra Zuniga.   |   Posted: July 25, 2024

Sports can be a game-changer for kids in poverty. Meet four girls who are skating, fencing, lifting and kayaking their way to a brighter future.

The Bold Girls Using Sports to Escape Poverty

Sports can be a game-changer for kids in poverty. Meet four girls who are skating, fencing, lifting and kayaking their way to a brighter future.

Written by Zoe Noakes, with field reporting by Kevin Nyakwada, Hutama Limarta, Nico Benalcazar, and Alejandra Zuniga.
Photos by Kevin Ouma, Hutama Limarta, Nico Benalcazar, Alejandra Zuniga, and Emily Turner.
Young girl named Abigail smiles and sits on stony ground proudly lifting her bright pink and purple roller skate in the air.

Embracing tradition and modern fun: Abigail proudly showcases her bright pink roller skates. Thanks to a roller-skating program launched by her Compassion center, her remote Maasai community in Kenya is rolling towards a vibrant future.


Adversity causes some… to break; others to break records.

William A. Ward, writer

Giggles and shouts bounce off the concrete floor as Abigail whizzes past, a neon-yellow blur in her safety vest. On Sundays, the community gathers in this room to worship. Today, the church hall in remote Kimanjo, Kenya, has transformed into an indoor roller-skating rink.

A dozen kids glide around, brightly colored skates strapped to their feet. Outside, the dusty, unpaved roads eventually give way to boulder-strewn hills. Until Compassion's church partner launched the skating program in the Maasai community, it was more common to see a wild elephant than a kid in roller skates. Families in the region had only ever seen the sport on TV.

"We wanted to expose the children to more than they see around them and to show them that they can access what other children have," says a Compassion center staff member.

Abigail dreams of working as a children's skating coach in the future. "Skating isn't easy," she says. "However, if one is interested, you become better with practice."

For her, it's not about being the best. Abigail and millions of children like her simply want the chance to participate.

Poverty Can Keep Children on the Sidelines

As they watch athletes compete at this year's Olympic Games, kids all over the world will be inspired to take up new sports. We know sports are great for kids' bodies and minds. They can increase kids' physical and mental health, improve social skills and foster friendships and teamwork. But what if their families can't afford it?

Many families living in poverty struggle to afford essentials, let alone extracurricular activities. And sports often aren't cheap. Fees, uniforms and equipment are luxuries when a family is just trying to survive. For kids like Abigail in remote communities, limited funding and opportunities can also keep them sidelined.

Girls face additional challenges. It's hard to be what you don't see, and the cultural message that "sports are for boys" is still ingrained around the world. Family expectations, a lack of confidence and changing bodies can further prevent girls from participating.

Game-Changing Girls and the Churches Cheering Them on

Compassion's goal is for all children to grow into their God-given potential, so supporting kids' physical health is a priority. Every child in Compassion's programs receives an annual medical checkup and is monitored for healthy growth and development.

And all over the world, from remote Kenyan communities to bustling cities and the Amazon jungle, our local church partners are creating sporting opportunities to help kids pursue their dreams.

Along with skater Abigail in Kenya, meet kayaker Rafaella, fencer Elsya and weightlifter Nicole. Besides sharing a love of sports, each girl is supported by a Compassion local church partner through the sponsorship program. As these girls pursue typically male-dominated sports, they're showing a new generation that, with grit and hard work, anything is possible.

Paddling Her Way to Success

Rafaella sits in her bright red kayak and lifts her paddle up into the air while floating down rapids in the Amazon, Ecuador.

Most 11-year-olds don't look at tumbling rapids and raging whirlpools and want to paddle through them. But Rafaella has always been adventurous. When her family first moved to the Amazon region in Ecuador, she told her dad, Santiago, "I want to practice kayaking."

He took her to a class for beginners where most participants were men. "I was very nervous," she says. "However, that day was extraordinary because I realized nothing differentiated me from the others. I felt the same desire and the same excitement [as them] to learn something new."

In the water, it didn't take long for her natural talent to shine. However, her family's financial situation couldn't extend to covering the equipment Rafaella needed.

"I [could] only trust in God, and I was sure that he was going to help us and fulfill Rafaella's dreams," says Santiago. Every weekend, he took Rafaella to the river to train, and God began opening doors.

"Friends from the kayak course gave me their equipment. I got a helmet, and a friend of my dad's gave me a paddle. And so, part by part and little by little, I acquired the necessary equipment to continue fighting for my dreams," she says.

Her Compassion center also encouraged her, offering mental health counseling, nutritious meals and transport to competitions. With this team behind her, Rafaella was crowned Ecuador's national female kayaking champion in 2023.

She says kayaking isn't just about winning medals — it's a platform she can use to empower others. As the local church, her sponsor and her family cheers her on, Rafaella is inspiring people with every stroke of her paddle.

Fencing Her Way to a Different Future

Elsya stands proudly wearing her white fencing gear and pointing her fencing sword into the air.

Elsya first picked up her fencing sword — a foil — when she was 11. Her mom, Mega, introduced her to the sport. Five years later, 16-year-old Elsya placed third in a regional competition.

In Indonesia, fencing isn't a common sport. "I don’t really know of any famous Indonesian female fencing athletes," Elsya laughs. Most athletes need to cover the costs of the sport themselves. This is a challenge for Elsya's family of five, who survive on her single mom's income selling street food.

Thankfully, her coach lends her the gear she needs. And after seeing Elsya's passion for the sport, her Compassion center began covering the cost of her fencing fees and protective clothing. "When we spot a child's talent, we have to try our best to support her," says Ruth, the center director.

Elsya dreams of helping people as a doctor or pharmacist — careers which require expensive university degrees. But fencing can provide a way for her to cover the costs. Elsya already receives a fully funded high school scholarship and hopes to secure a similar athletic scholarship to university.

"Fencing teaches me to be a focused and diligent person," she says. "I need to focus when I am fencing. When to dodge the opponent and when to attack — that's what I learn and apply into my academic study and daily life."

Discipline is something Nicole in El Salvador is familiar with too. Where Elsya is light on her feet, twisting and darting, Nicole plants her feet firmly on the ground as she hoists weights heavier than she is above her shoulders.

While smiling, Nicole stands on the wooden gym floor and lifts a barbell into the air.

The 18-year-old lives in hot, sleepy Santa Rosa de Lima in El Salvador. Because there were few healthy entertainment options for young people, the local government opened gyms inside public schools.

Weightlifting is generally known as a sport for men, but Nicole shrugged off the community’s expectations and signed up. "My cousin and I were the only girls who trained in the sport," she says.

Breaking Barriers in Weightlifting and Academics

Initially, the community's comments made her feel incapable. Even her mother was worried. "That's a sport for men, not for girls. Imagine if something happened to you while you were lifting weights," she told Nicole.

"She only wanted to protect me," says Nicole. "Because weightlifting is considered for men, people tend to minimize a woman's physical capacity."

In the three years since, Nicole has demolished the physical and mental barriers that once made her doubt herself. Today, she's a serious competitor at weightlifting contests. Staff at her child development center are among her biggest champions.

"At the center, I always found encouraging words when my tutors looked at me and I seemed sad or discouraged," she says. "They lifted my spirits by saying: 'Don't give up, there will always be good or bad workouts, but the important thing is to keep going.'"

When Nicole first began competing, the travel costs were too much for her family. Not only did her center cover the expenses, but staff also organized a nutritionist for her. Poverty can strip kids of basic rights like health care and nutrition.

Without healthy foundations, children can fall behind their peers despite their best efforts. Accessing a personalized diet, vitamins and a personal trainer has helped Nicole's performance go — literally — from strength to strength.

"I knew I needed the [vitamins and health supplements], but it was out of my reach to buy them," she says. "My performance has improved a lot!"

Like Elsya in Indonesia, Nicole has learned to apply the same discipline to her academic studies. She dreams of studying chemistry and working as a scientist.

"I feel very proud of what I have achieved to date because it is very encouraging to feel that you can make people older than you are feel proud," she says, "and that you are an example for many other girls within the community."

Abigail, Rafaella, Elsya and Nicole stand as living proof: when we help kids off the sidelines and cheer them on, they can change the game — not just for themselves but for generations to come.

Send a Child to Sports Camp

Five children wearing pink and purple uniforms stand in front of a clay home and smile for the camera.
Give a child in poverty the chance to be a kid, have fun and learn discipline and endurance in a healthy, Christian environment.
Five children wearing pink and purple uniforms stand in front of a clay home and smile for the camera.