Billy Vunipola is a powerful presence on the rugby pitch. He knows how to make an impact – as anyone who watched England’s journey to the World Cup final will have noticed. He also has a strong faith and a big heart. Billy recently travelled to Colombia with Tearfund to be a part of a slightly different sort of impact to the kind he’s most well known for.
The big Saracens forward knows how sport can inspire and change lives – not just with trophies and salaries – but as a tool to build togetherness and respect. In Cartagena and Barranquilla, Billy visited Tearfund partners where staff are using rugby and football to do just that. They’re providing a place for young people to belong – an alternative to the violence and dangers on the streets in a country where gang culture has been a long-term problem.
It makes sense to Billy. ‘Sport is always a great tool to bring people together,’ he says. ‘I think Tearfund are using it as a great opportunity to get people together and off the streets...Through the churches, they’re...teaching them about values and fellowship with God.’
‘With the power of sport to inspire, hopefully more kids will be encouraged to join networks like this so they can get off the streets and away from the violence.’
Billy took time to watch a football tournament and also to play a bit of rugby and football with some of the younger children. He quickly found his place when a confident 12-year-old sent him into goal. Being out of the main action wasn’t Billy’s favourite position, but it was one of the things that impressed him about the projects – young people learning to lead in a healthy context.
‘We met these young leaders who came in as kids and now they take the forefront of a lot of the work they do,’ says Billy. ‘When it comes from one of your own it means that little bit more and so that empowerment means a lot.’
Sport is one love of Billy’s. Food is another. Moving on, Billy visited a canteen set up to provide meals to some of the 1.6 million Venzuelan refugees who have made their home in Colombia, fleeing the political and humanitarian crisis in their own country.
‘I learnt a lot about being grateful,’ says Billy. ‘It’s truly humbling to see this situation and hear about how they have to try to make ends meet...We’re so used to everything being done the way we like it – we’re used to different luxuries that we probably aren’t grateful for and these guys just make it work. You saw the kids just playing and having fun and it just puts a different perspective on things.’
Something that left a lasting impression on the rugby player was that strength he saw in the people he met and the respectful and uplifting response from the partner staff he encountered. ‘You’re empowering them – not spoon feeding,’ he said of Tearfund’s work. ‘I think they appreciate that more than just getting handouts because they’re strong people. From what I’ve seen, they’re proud people and they want to help their families. And that’s what Tearfund are doing – helping and empowering people.’
Billy’s visit was undoubtedly an encouragement to the people he met but, in a world where Billy Vunipola is right at the top of his game, he says, ‘I think [I’ve] taken far more from these kids than they will from me.’
Thank you for for the people and projects Billy was able to visit. We pray that you will bless them and provide for them. Please also protect and encourage each of our partners as they work. Amen.