BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Children living in a slum in Argentina's capital are playing cricket as part of an initiative to help them escape poverty and crime.
Villa 21-24 in Buenos Aires is a slum so dangerous that most outsiders don't dare enter. But the kids playing the ball-and-bat sport in a dirt training ground say they've found new hope in a sport that is mostly restricted to the elite.
The International Cricket Council even awarded the children's Caacupe team with its Best Spirit of Cricket Initiative. The council said the pairing of these marginalized kids with students from St. George's College, an upscale school, has improved their life both on and off the pitch and sets an example worldwide.
"It's a real recognition not only of the development of this project but also of the way in which we are coaching the children" said Daniel Juarez, a former player from one of Buenos Aires' most renowned cricket clubs, and the mastermind behind the initiative.
Cricket originated in Britain but is also widely played in South Asia and the Caribbean. The sport was introduced to the slum in 2009 as a way to integrate children to a game that traditionally was reserved for Argentina's upscale private schools. Its twice-weekly training sessions now include up to 30 children between ages of 8 and 15.
For the poorest citizens, crowded in "misery villages" throughout Buenos Aires, sport has become a rare escape from a life of frustration, crime and drugs.
The cricket project is one of the key activities in the Caacupe community center, which is named after a virgin saint popular among Argentina's rural and poor communities.
It also has some illustrious benefactors.
Sometimes referred to as the "slum pope," Pope Francis while he was cardinal of Buenos Aires was one of the driving forces in founding the slum's community center and remained intimately connected to its operations.
The Rev. Pepe Di Paola, a close friend of the pontiff, is patron of Caacupe cricket and was heavily involved in its initiation.
"It has to do with sport being a living school, a channel of values," said Di Paola, who is known for his work fighting the drug trade in Argentina's slums.
Several members of the youth team are also attending cricket training lessons taught at private schools and three of them have been selected to play for national Argentine youth division teams at international tournaments.
"Kids from the slum have had the chance to play in big games ... some of them have even gotten to travel by airplane to other places," Di Paola said. "It has been a really positive experience."
Fourteen-year-old Alexis Gaona joined the club in its early stages and has developed a passion for cricket. Last year, he travelled to Peru to play on an Argentine under-13 team.
"You can really use it in life as well. From here you have a reference for the rest of your life," Gaona said.