Magic Bus transports kids to a better life

Mr Matthew Spacie is a crushed-pink-shirt- wearing agent of change.

He's a cappuccino-inhaling entrepreneur built of empathy.

He's an animated, unpreachy path-breaker with tired, creased eyes who wants you to understand the idea of giving.

Matthew Spacie is also a gentle liar.

He believes that he's just like you and me.

The ordinary man. "Absolutely I am," he says.

Absolutely he is not.

This was an 18-year-old boy who worked with leprosy sufferers in India.

A 29-year-old who introduced Mumbai street children to rugby, then gave up his job and altered their lives and his own.

A 46-year-old now whose organisation Magic Bus works with 250,000 children from slums and streets and remand homes in India.

Ordinary?

Mr Spacie, an Englishman who has lived in Mumbai for 17 years, laughs when he sees a line about halos in my notes.

He doesn't have one.

He knows, too, that life isn't a contest, not a counting of sins or a calculation of virtues.

Yet goodness is more than leading the moral life or signing a cheque for charity, but in fact acting on an idea, living it, giving it impetus every day in a bid to alter lives.

Mr Spacie does that.

He is proof of possibility, evidence that there is an extraordinariness in us if we choose to grasp it.

In Singapore last week to speak at Ideas for a Better World, a forum organised by the Singapore International Foundation, he is inhabited by the restless energy of the evangelist.

He is the founder and chief executive of Magic Bus, a non-governmental organisation with 29 offices in India (and in New York, London and Berlin to raise funds), with 10,000 mentors working in 4,000 communities.

Sport is their weapon for development in their workshops run by mentors.

Sport is what attracts children irrespective of caste or religion or gender and then sport is used - as their curriculum says - in lessons to build resilience, empower women (all teams are half boys and half girls), promote harmony and civic sense and increase literacy.

Magic Bus is a metaphorical vehicle to transport children, as their website says "towards a better life with better awareness, better life skills, and better opportunities".

Inevitably, a man from the travel industry has spent a life dedicated to journeys.

His adventure began at 18 to an unfamiliar India from England.

In the cool town of Dharamsala, he found himself contracted to "teach English to young Tibetan monks at a monastery that was six hours away in the mountains".

Prostration at 4am was a disturbing vision to a beer-drinking teenager and he fled.

The first train he found was headed for Howrah station in Kolkata, and an introduction to Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity followed.

He worked with tuberculosis and leprosy patients and one might think of it as a first comprehension of India's awkward divide between poor and rich and an early apprenticeship into goodness.

In his late 20s, he returned to Mumbai, a CEO of travel company Cox & Kings with a lust for rugby.

It is a sport, he says, "with a sense of duty", for "if you don't take a tackle, then your friend has to". Outside the Bombay Gymkhana where he played, as with all over India, street children loitered.

Children with no future.

Children, 16 of them at first, then 30, who Mr Spacie taught rugby to at the club and forged into a team.

Mr Spacie, a man who suggests his head is ricocheting with ideas, then had an inspired one. "I wanted the boys to do something for me," he says.

So he hired a bus for a weekend and took 50 other slum children out for three days to the nearby beaches and mountains.

The ocean in Mumbai can be just 2km away, but its water was a mystery for many locked within slums.

But on that trip, the rugby boys had to be the mentors. "And this is a very important part of Magic Bus DNA. None of my (800) staff delivers programmes. We train village youth to deliver the programmes. It has more impact when someone from their own community relates to them."

The first trip had consequences. "Taking a young child who lives in hell away for a weekend was a disaster," he says.

On Friday, you pick them up, on Sunday you return them forever to their old lives. "It actually made me cry," he says.

They cried, too.

Kindness without continuity can almost be a mistake.

It might brighten lives but changes little; it is a teasing look at another world but with no clear entry into it.

So began an exploration, an athlete running with an idea.

He left his travel job, started Magic Bus in 1999, sought multiple partners.

An award from the World Bank meant "we could invest in researchers and academics to understand how you make the link between mentoring, sport, community work and outcomes we want to achieve in education and health... up to the point of employment".

It took them five years.

Finally, he says, "we came up with this incredible curriculum which took a child from eight to 18". If they had started with 3,000 children - street dwellers, slum children, sex worker girls and rural children - circumstance was to challenge him. "We bumped into Unicef, and they said we like what you do and we'll pay for you to scale. And they took us from 3,000 children to 150,000 literally in a two-year period."

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