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Life, leadership and soccer in East Timor

Nathan McLean was one of six exercise science students from Australian Catholic University (ACU) who recently returned from implementing a community soccer program in East Timor.

Annabel GuthrieStudent Annabel Guthrie with chilrden in Baucau

The 21 year-old spent a month in Baucau as part of the Future in Youth project - teaching leadership, health, and life skills to more than 400 children and young people through soccer.

“We taught an orientation and education program to the young coaches, and a sports education program for the kids – which they absolutely loved,” Nathan said. “Every day we had more and more turning up as word spread about what we were doing.

“I realised just how much they were enjoying themselves one day when every single kid turned up despite thunderstorms and torrential rain."

Nathan is in his third year of the Bachelor of Exercise Science at the University’s Melbourne Campus, and was travelling overseas for only the second time.

He was joined in East Timor by fellow exercise science students Louisa Bavaro, Annabel Guthrie, Samantha Lawrence, Matthew Pink and Tristan Ross, and theology student Courtenay Peters.

“East Timor was a fantastic experience and one that I am incredibly grateful for,” Nathan said. “Before I went I learnt a little about the crippling poverty and struggle the East Timorese face just to live, so I expected to meet relatively unhappy individuals.

“However I was totally shocked by how happy they are. They may not be able to attend school, afford dinner or drink clean water but they will still find ways to live a happy existence.

“Such a positive outlook on life was inspiring to me.”

Nathan said the trip was a steep learning curve, with some challenging obstacles along the way.

“At the very start, the one tonne of sporting equipment that we had ordered hadn't arrived, and although it was the dry season, we had some days where it absolutely poured,” he said.

“We also shared the training pitch with the local Baucau football team who took first precedence, and had to learn to adjust to “Timor time”, which definitely taught me to be a little more patient and flexible.”

Despite limited infrastructure when it comes to sport, Nathan said soccer was easily the game of choice for East Timorese children.

“Sport is such a great conveyor of life lessons, and I could see how much the kids had learnt about teamwork and sportsmanship by the end of the program,” he said.

Nathan McLeanNathan McLean was one of six students who travelled to East Timor.


“I really feel like we have given the children hope that there is something greater to be achieved in life, and reignited a passion for sport in the broader community.”

ACU exercise science senior lecturer Dr Paul Callery set up the program with fellow ACU senior lecturer and AFL Hall of Fame inductee Dr Ross Smith.

He said there was nearly 100 per cent youth unemployment in the Baucau region.

“These kids love soccer, and by developing sports programs we hope to teach them to become leaders,” he said. “A club mentality will hopefully help them to stay out of trouble, support each other, and give them hope for a different future.

“We set up some structures when we were there so the newly trained coaches can continue to teach without us, but we’ll hopefully be taking a team of students back every year and making it a longer-term project.”

The Future in Youth project is an initiative of ACU’s Institute for Advancing Community Engagement (IACE) – which aims to create a better tomorrow for East Timorese and other communities through fostering effective connections between teaching, research and community engagement.

This year’s trip was supported by the Australian Sports Commission, Macquarie Bank, Nylec Industries, Catholic Education Office Melbourne, Steve Lawrence and Vice-Chancellor of ACU, Professor Greg Craven.

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