In 2016, a few months before finishing university I thought I had it all together.
But then my ex-girlfriend left me for someone who gave her more attention.
I suddenly didn’t feel like finding a house, buying a car and starting a stable job anymore.
I needed something else.
So I applied for something called the Arsenal Gap Programme. It’s a gap year in which you spend 12 months volunteering for the Arsenal Community. In return, you get a lot of football coaching experience and some related training like PE and English teaching.
Of course, much of the costs would have to be covered by myself. So I looked at the finances of moving to London and talked with my parents about living abroad for a year. (Little did they know it was going to turn into many years).
In May, the Arsenal Community called me for an interview…
I’ll never forget one of the questions: “How would you describe the colour yellow to a blind person?” I said: “When you go outside, you feel the warmth of the sun on your skin. The sun is yellow.” Not bad, with little time to think, I guess.
Anyway, I got accepted and I moved to London in July 2016.
What followed were some of the best months of my life. I met amazing people from all over the world: Australia, the UK, Ireland, Germany, Zimbabwe and on.
And I worked right next to the Emirates stadium. I also visited Colney, the training centre, twice.
One of the best experiences was that we got access to a matchbox a couple of times. We watched a veteran game and two League Cup games with free coffee and beer. No food, unfortunately.
But that was only the start of my journey.
Having completed the training, I was sent to Uganda to teach English and football, representing the Arsenal brand.
I met more amazing people, rafted on the Nile, bungee-jumped and tracked mountain gorillas in Bwindi.
I never felt more connected to nature.
The three months were over in no time. I still remember the kind people, their friendship, their love, their gratitude.
I’m still hoping to go back to Kanungu one day.
But the Arsenal Gap year wasn’t over yet.
Next, I was sent to Bolivia. Those three months would really change my life.
And yet, I don’t have such fond memories of my first months in Cochabamba.
The kids in the projects we were helping didn’t appreciate anything. They didn’t want to learn. They fought because one received 17 gifts and the other only 16.
I remembered the kids in Uganda who were thankful because we gave them our time…
But what I did find in Bolivia is love.
Believe it or not, I met this amazing girl via Tinder.
It just clicked.
After three months, I had to return home to Belgium. But I was determined. After a scheduled surgery and four months of revalidation, I flew back to Bolivia.
Leaving Europe was difficult but it made a few dreams possible.
I had always wanted to teach for a few years. The best teachers for me have lots of life experience. So ideally, I wanted to be a teacher when older. But living in Bolivia, I got the opportunity to do it without the “right” degree at age 24.
My first year was a real struggle. Education in Bolivia is different. Kids were not allowed to fail any subjects. Kind of by law. So what happened? Most of them didn’t do anything and teachers had to invent all sorts of things to make them pass.
By the end of the year, I had a burnout. I was working from 8 am until 9 pm. Teaching in the morning and coaching football in the afternoons and evenings. The little free time I had in between, was spent preparing and revising.
The next year, I didn’t teach. But in my third year in Bolivia, I got an offer I couldn’t refuse. I was asked to teach English part-time in the American International School of Bolivia (AISB), one of the country’s most prestigious schools. And if I’m not wrong, the only Bolivian school that offers an American, Bolivian and International degree. (To give you an idea of its prestige, the monthly fees were about the same as my wage of around $ 700.)
And my next dream was coaching football. Having received training from the Arsenal community, I was accepted to coach in AISB and a local team. I coached the u15s, u17s and u23s before turning 27.
And recently, I found out some incredible news. Some of these kids are on the brink of becoming professional football players. I hope to see one (or more) of them play in Europe someday.
But back to me. Most importantly, everything I have now was determined in those years.
That girl I met on Tinder is now my wife and the mother of our beautiful daughter and son.
In the year I didn’t teach, I didn’t feel intellectually challenged by football coaching. I needed something else to do. And when a friend told me about Upwork, I created an account. For $ 13 per hour, I started translating a Colombian travel website.
In the following months, I slowly started raising my rates but I wasn’t finding many big opportunities. So at the start of 2020, I was combining four jobs: teaching English in AISB, coaching football in AISB, coaching elsewhere and doing some freelance work.
That soon ended with the pandemic. All classes were moved to Zoom meetings. Coaching football online doesn’t work. And by August, the school had to let go of 30 teachers, including me.
Fortunately, the Bolivian government had decided to cancel the school year. So many parents found it unnecessary to send their kids to school for voluntary programmes. But they did want them to practise English.
So I became a private teacher. Word of mouth got me 8 students who were happy to pay me a rate of about $ 15-$ 20 per hour. For three hours of work per day, I was now earning more than what the school paid me to teach 40+ kids in over four hours per day.
Everything came to an end again when we moved to Peru at the end of the year. The only thing I had left was freelance work.
So I want all in on that.
Some people say everything happens for a reason. My wife is a firm believer.
I’m not sure.
But I do know that small things have a huge impact.
What if I hadn’t moved to London? What if they had sent me to another country? What if I hadn’t returned to Bolivia?