An offhand remark prompted Edina native Franz Gastler's effort to lift girls out of poverty.
In a region of India where girls are often marginalized, illiterate and married off by age 16, Edina native Franz Gastler is creating hope and joy through the sport of soccer.
Gastler is co-founder of a youth sports organization called Yuwa, which started in 2008 with one team from the village of Hutup and has since expanded to 13 teams and more than 200 girls.
Yuwa's teams begin humbly: The girls save money for shoes and practice barefoot on the brown pastures that pass for soccer fields. But over time, the players gain a sense of commitment, a rededication to schooling, and confidence they would otherwise lack.
"Without that self-belief," Gastler said, "you can come in with all the fancy ideas for education you want, but you're going to have a bunch of kids who can't even speak for themselves."
Gastler, 30, returned to Minnesota this week for the holidays and a fundraiser for Yuwa, which is named after the Hindi word for youth.
Among its early accomplishments: None of the girls from the original team got married in their teens, unlike their older sisters. Several are now in college. One player made an Indian national team.
It was hardly Gastler's master plan after graduating from Edina High School in 2000 and going to Boston University, then Harvard. He worked for an economic development organization in New Delhi, but found colleagues there unwilling to leave their desks to identify needs. He sought cultural immersion by moving into a mud hut in Hutup and teaching at a government school. Inspiration came from a girl's offhand comment in 2008 that she wanted to play soccer.
Gastler told her he would coach a team if she could find more girls who wanted to play -- even though he knew little about the sport. He was a hockey goalie growing up.
"I kind of taught the girls how to play ice hockey first with a soccer ball," he said with a laugh. "There were a lot of body checks and things."
Gastler invited boys too, but the boys in the patriarchal culture seemed indifferent unless they received new jerseys and equipment. The girls desired only a ball and a field.
"The girls, they weren't going to get this chance again, and they knew it," Gastler said.
Prying the girls from home was the hard part; in that part of India, they're expected to cook, clean and tend vegetable fields, he said. "It was a huge battle between the girls and most of their mothers," Gastler said. "The dads also weren't very gung-ho about it, but it was generally the mothers who would suffer when the girls were out of the house."
The jersey problem
The girls' enthusiasm won. Gastler formed the organization with donations, personal savings and the $2,000 monthly stipend from the economic development organization for which he worked. Three Edina classmates helped found Yuwa.
His next discovery: Handing out free jerseys proved problematic, because the girls' brothers and fathers just took them. Instead, the girls now save up 100 rupees (a little more than $2) to pay a third of the cost of soccer cleats, and receive jerseys after participating for four months. (Many jerseys are leftovers from the Edina Soccer Club, and still bear the Edina logo.) Gastler said it's harder for others to take away uniforms from girls who have worked so hard to earn them.
The girls elect captains who make sure teammates go to school. English-language classes after practices supplement the girls' educations.
Yuwa earned a $25,000 Nike Gamechangers grant to build a playing facility, and is now large enough that it recruits interns from the U.S. to teach English. Two top female soccer players from the U.S. and U.K., Joanna Lohman and Lianne Sanderson, are visiting next month.
Though the girls take soccer seriously -- competing for spots on national teams -- Gastler said success on the field is secondary: "If you make winning your goal, you won't really achieve much because you'll start caring about the scoreboard and not the kids' development."
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744