News

Magic Bus Uses Sports To Transform Children’s Lives
March 27,2015
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The server room doubles up as the meeting hall. Huge aluminium trunks packed with sports kits and training material serve as sofas. Modest cotton mattresses and cushions offer some comfort even as a stubborn AC plays spoilsport. "The remote does not work. We will just switch it on and off to keep us comfortable," grins Matthew Spacie, 46, founder of Magic Bus, an NGO that uses sports-based activities to improve the lives of underprivileged children.

In a modest office in the narrow bylanes of Parel in central Mumbai — so congested that cars cannot drive in — Spacie is dreaming big. He wants Magic Bus to touch 1 million kids by 2015. Looking beyond mere school enrolment, Spacie wants to make school fun, more holistic and inculcate behavioural change that will help these children — both boys and girls — turn into confident and capable adults.

"Never in history have so many people lived with so little [as in India]. We need to change that," he says.

Spacie started on his mission in 2001 quitting his high-profile corporate career — he was COO of Cox & Kings and is also a co-founder of online travel portal Cleartrip. "Behavioural change among the young is as important as building a school. Nobody in the world does it on a scale that we do," he says.

Dreaming a Better World

Ambition isn't often voiced in the not-for-profit space. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It does with Spacie, for sure. Since 2001, the Magic Bus programme has grown to reach out to 300,000 children in 12 states through 8,500 community volunteers with 800 full-time staff. The children mostly live in slums and go to government or charity schools.

Different impact assessment studies commissioned by Magic Bus reveal that children with the NGO have better attendance, lower dropout rates and improved behavioural skills. About 98% of the girls in Magic Bus schools are going to secondary school as against the national average of 35%, says Spacie. A project in the Mumbai Port Trust slum area saw the school attendance go up to over 80% (from 20%) over 10 years.

It has also shown good results in tackling gender biases, one of the biggest thrust areas. In a study done in the slums of Dharavi and Mumbai Port Trust, it found that a higher percentage of children believed in equal leadership capabilities among girls and boys.

Impressed, many state governments struggling with high dropout rates and poor results are reaching out to Magic Bus for help. Spacie is partnering ICICI Foundation in Rajasthan to work with 22,000 children in 150 government schools to make them compliant with the Right to Education (RTE) Act as part of a pilot.

Thanks to Spacie, Magic Bus today also has an impressive list of partners and donors from ICICI Foundation, Vodafone Foundation, Nike and HSBC to BMW, Reliance Foundation, Bloomberg and Rio Tinto. California-based TOMS Shoes gives away a pair of shoes to underprivileged children for every pair it sells; it sends shoe consignments to Magic Bus every year.

Asian Football Development Project, headed by Jordan's Prince Ali bin al Hussein, is funding the equipment and specialised coaching for Magic Bus' talented boys and girls. "Magic Bus gives youth in marginalised areas hope for a brighter future. Football has the power to create positive social change, with a special emphasis on helping girls overcome social barriers," says Hussein.

The Magic Bus Journey

Spacie's brush with India and its poor began way back in 1986 when he first came as a volunteer with the Sisters of Charity to Kolkata. In 1996 when he returned as COO of Cox & Kings India, he wrote a few cheques as part of the company's CSR activities. "But I wanted to go beyond giving cheques," he says. He knew that at 3.5 million, India had a vibrant set of NGOs.

"But they were mostly momand-pop operations. I wanted to build capacity in the not-for-profit sector and focus on children," he says. Started in 1999, Magic Bus has an interesting genesis. A keen sportsman then, Spacie would play rugby at the Bombay Gymkhana. "While we played we would see these street children watching and cheering us from across the boundary wall," recalls Spacie.

"I thought about my childhood. How sports moulded me into who I was, and I wanted to do something for them," he says. So he decided to form a rugby team with these street children, and persuaded the elite club to allow them to play on its lawns. On three weeknights, Spacie would play rugby with them.

On weekends, he would rent a bus, load it with goodies and take it to different slum colonies like Dharavi, get a bunch of children through a network of NGOs and take the kids on their "most incredible weekends of their lives", camping and picnicking.

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