RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – When he was a little boy, Rodrigo Borges, 31, dreamed of putting on a kimono and competing in judo, a sport that fascinated him.
But his mother worked as a maid and was unable to pay for the kimono, much less enroll him in judo classes.
“I lived in the Rocinha favela, but I studied in an upper-middle class neighborhood and I would always walk by a gym where other boys were practicing judo,” Borges says. “I would just watch and dream.”
When he turned 19, Borges realized his dream, enrolling in the Children of the Future Education Project, which offered judo classes to children and youth in Rocinha.
The team of teachers included judoka Flávio Canto, one of the stars of Brazilian judo, a five-time Pan American Games champion and bronze medalist at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Due to the lack of government support, the Children of the Future Education Project ended in 2003, but Canto, who was a volunteer teacher, continued offering free classes in Rocinha.
Thus began Instituto Reação, one of the most respected sports NGOs in Brazil. In 2011, Reação received the Brasil Olímpico award from the Brazilian Olympic Committee (COB), and now, in addition to performing a social service, it also trains champions in other underprivileged communities in Rio de Janeiro.
Borges has grown with Reação. He earned his black belt and now works as a teacher with the project. He also earned his degree in physical education, through a scholarship from a private university that works with the program.
“Canto says that I broke a vicious cycle within my own family by being the first to get a college degree,” Borges says. “Before judo, I didn’t even think about higher education. I thought I would – at most – graduate from high school, like my mom.”
In February 2012, Canto announced his retirement as a competitive athlete and intention to work full time with Reação and as host of a TV sports program.
“Borges is one of the best examples of Instituto Reação’s success,” says Canto, 37. “Our work begins with the sport, but its real aim is social transformation through concepts such as discipline, solidarity and self-esteem.”
Throughout the city
About 1,200 children between the ages 4 to 16 take classes at Instituto Reação. The NGO has two schools in Cidade de Deus, on the west side of the city; one in Tubiacanga, located in Ilha do Governador on the north side of the city; and two schools on the south side of the city, one in Rocinha and one at the Pequena Cruzada de Santa Therezinha do Menino Jesus boarding school in Lagoa.
In addition to free judo classes, the NGO’s students also receive tutoring, health and nutrition counseling and physiotherapy.
Young people who stand out are given scholarships to private high schools and universities interested in attracting competitive athletes. More than 50 of the NGO’s judokas currently receive academic scholarships.
Instituto Reação has also become a hotbed for new talent.
On June 7, the NGO won in the advanced category of the Rio de Janeiro championships, with 23 medals, outperforming traditional sports clubs, such as Flamengo, which won 19.
One of the standouts at Reação is the light heavyweight Rafaela Silva, 20, a former under-20 world champion, a silver medalist at the 2011 World Judo Championships and one of Brazil’s brightest hopes at the London Games.
Silva began practicing judo at age 8 at one of the schools in Cidade de Deus.
“Rafaela is a perfect example of the maxim ‘your past is not your destiny,’ which is what we always say here at Reação,” Canto says. “She has shown that the limits put in place by society and family can always be overcome.”
In spite of all the success, there were times when Canto faced difficult moments with the NGO. However, after the first couple of years, the children from the local community began to succeed, bringing about change.
Now, there’s a waiting list for students who want to participate.
“In the beginning, we were seen as ‘foreigners,’” says Canto, who wants to continue expanding Reação in order to have an impact on the greatest possible number of lives. “The communities were skeptical, because most social programs don’t see things through to completion.”
Little by little, residents realized that Reação could provide a future.
“When I was the example, it was hard. After all, I was born and raised in a different socioeconomic reality,” Canto says. “But when our first students got their college degrees and won international competitions, all the other kids realized that ‘improbable’ is only a matter of opinion.”