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Meet Indochina Starfish Foundation

Ensuring that young Cambodians of All Abilities have an equal chance

September 25, 2020

From September 15 to 25, we have been highlighting the stories and work of our 2020 Beyond Sport Global Awards Shortlisters who are using sport to address marginalization, disadvantage and inequality head on. Cambodia’s Indochina Starfish Foundation is one of them. Learn more about the inspiring work they are doing to tackle adversity, cultivate inclusion and promote equality.

When ISF began operations in 2006 in Phnom Penh, it wasn’t with a grand vision to help thousands of young people. Rather, it wanted to make a difference for a few. A purpose depicted by philosopher Loren Eiseley’s The Star Thrower (aka the starfish story) and from where the organization got its name:

“The tide has gone out and has left a million starfish stranded on the beach. They are slowly dying under the heat of the sun. A little girl is walking along this beautiful sandy beach. As she walks along, she picks up a starfish and throws it back into the sea. She then picks another one and another, throwing each into the sea. An old man watches her for a while then walks up to her and says “‘What are you doing little girl? There are millions of starfish out there dying. You cannot believe that you can make a difference.’” The girl kneels down, picks up a starfish, throws it into the sea and says ‘“I made a difference to that one.’”

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44.2% of Cambodian children face multi-dimensional poverty, insufficient housing, inadequate or no education, and poor healthcare, sanitation and nutrition. And, only 15% of adolescents of its two most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups - people with disabilities and HIV - attend secondary school. The Cambodian and Buddhist belief is that those with disabilities and HIV have sinned in a previous life and “deserve” their afflictions.

For the past 14 years, ISF has been working to end stigmas and exclusion, increase access to education, lift people out of poverty and give children safe opportunities to play and to picture brighter futures for themselves: “no matter where they come from, no matter who their parents are, no matter what gender, creed or colour.” For the past seven years, it has directly addressed social exclusion and social and economic discrimination with its All Abilities project.

“Football can empower communities regardless of their abilities,” said ISF Country Manager, Vicheka Chourp. “The overall goal of the football program is not to produce football players, but to give children the opportunity to be children and also to be part of society.”

The organisation is engaging some of the city’s most marginalized children through its holistic, award-winning football programme; players who are deaf and hearing-impaired, blind and visually-impaired, wheelchair-bound and those with intellectual disabilities and HIV-positive. What started with 50 players now includes 3500 children and youth of differing abilities from across 12 of Cambodia’s 24 provinces. In 2019, 59 of its participants were HIV-positive, 479 were disabled and 1300 were girls.

Through a combination of education, healthcare, sport and community outreach, ISF provides fun weekly technical and social impact-focused coaching, assisting over 70 organisations and schools with organised sport activities, training, equipment and participation in league matches and annual tournaments. Coaches develop players’ skills in communication, teamwork, resilience and problem-solving to help them become more active in their communities and improve their chances of employment and economic inclusion.

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Activities are supported by individual care workers and adapted as needed to ensure inclusion, including play and communication tools such as Makaton and Cambodian sign language, audible footballs, seeing coach guides trained in Blind Football, an annual Deaf/Hearing-Impaired Tournament, games adapted for wheelchair players and engaging activities for young people with intellectual disabilities.

For 18-year-old Phanat, the All Abilities events provide a rare opportunity for him to have fun and show off his talents. Formerly, he saw himself as isolated, short-tempered and weak. But with the regular exercise and sense of community that comes with team sport, he now believes he has become more patient, confident and healthy. “When I play football, I feel that I am not different from other youth my age. We’re all working to develop ourselves,” he said.

During monthly sessions, players are exposed to a custom football for social impact curriculum developed in partnership with Coaches Across Continents (a fellow 2020 Shortlister and past Awards winner). They engage on important local and global issues such as education, drug and alcohol abuse, gambling, disability and inclusion, human rights, empathy and gender equality. Players share experiences and learn lessons on the pitch that in turn can contribute to behaviour change in them, their families and local communities.

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In the end, players of all abilities are empowered to become advocates for equality.

The Sports for All Abilities project from Indochina Starfish Foundation is a 2020 Beyond Sport Global Awards shortlisted program in the Sport for Reduced Inequalities Category. Learn more about the rest of this year’s Shortlist and follow their journeys at



“Climbing is an interesting activity that calms the soul.”