When Nikhitha was 12 years old, her parents pulled her out of school and decided their only daughter would get married. As farmers dependent on a favorable monsoon season, the year’s poor rainfall forced them to make this decision. This is common enough in her community, so no one thought it odd – except Nikhitha herself.
Nikhitha felt she was too young and begged her parents to reconsider. With encouragement from her aunt and the Magic Bus program that she’s been a part of for the last three years, Nikhitha convinced her parents to cancel the engagement. She is now completing secondary school with hopes to study agriculture in college.
A year later, she earned a scholarship along with fellow Magic Bus participant, Sangita, to attend a week-long overnight sports and leadership camp in New Jersey. The camp was led by two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and retired professional soccer player, Julie Foudy.
Says Nikhitha: “I hope this makes my parents realize that I am made for bigger things.”
In the Magic Bus program, 48 percent are girls and none of them, under age 18, are married. That’s because of inspiring and confidence-building sports activities, mentoring, and vocational training. These experiences advance them on a different path than the 43 percent of girls in India who marry before age 18.
18-year-old Sangita saw how Magic Bus benefited her older sister and now, after being in the program for five years, made it her goal to attend Foudy’s Academy in America. The most valuable lesson Sangita learned from Magic Bus was the importance of an education.
“This trip showed me a new culture and way of life,” says Sangita, who lives with her six family members in a Mumbai slum, and was initially overwhelmed upon arriving in the United States. “I was outside my comfort zone, but it helped me grow as a person. I feel more confident and open-minded.”
Nikhitha and Sangita’s involvement with the Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academy in July marks the fourth year of a partnership with Magic Bus. A handful of girls from India, along with girls from the U.S., aged 12 to 18, train in soccer or lacrosse, while learning leadership skills and gaining confidence on and off the field.
Foudy says the results of the partnership are rewarding and impactful.
“The courage these girls have to come to America for two weeks is incredible to watch,” says Foudy, who added it was an “eye-opener” to many U.S. participants when Magic Bus’ Nikhitha and Sangita shared the reality of life in India during a Q&A session.
Nikhitha, who made her first trip away from her small hometown to attend the Academy, is the only girl in her area who will surpass the 7th standard in school. She will be among 98 percent of adolescent girls in secondary school in the Magic Bus program, compared to the national average, 46 percent.
She is determined to mentor her soccer teammates in India, improve their games, and advocate for their futures.
“My coach at the camp, Ali, as well as Julie Foudy, have been an inspiration,” says Nikhitha, a goalie and captain. “Their patience and dedication is something I will take with me and share with the girls back home.”
Nikhitha and Sangita are among more than 300,000 Magic Bus participants in India, Singapore, and the United Kingdom.
Board member Anurag Bhargava says he’s impressed with program results and efficiency with $25 per individual, per year, for 80 support hours.
“Once you achieve critical mass it is a lot easier to demonstrate the benefits of the program to children, especially young girls,” says Bhargava. “It can change their lives.”
By 2017, Magic Bus hopes to reach one million participants in more countries, and fostering perseverance is a key feature of that effort.
Says Foudy: “Sports are a gift of empowerment, providing confidence, discipline, and community. If we couple sports with life lessons we can teach young women and their families that they can contribute to society in a positive way.”
If you would like to support girls like Nikhitha and Sangita, please visit www.magicbususa.org to make a donation or email firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved. You may hear more about Nikhitha and Sangita’s journeys with Magic Bus during our Benefit Galas this fall. Tickets are now available for Saturday, September 19th in Houston and Wednesday, September 30th in New York City.