For a good life with the help of Icehearts

Text: Kreetta Haaslahti, Photos: Julia Hannula

When a group of young men meet twice a week on a floorball court in Ulvila to train and play, raunchy humour and brotherly battles abound, just like in any group with teenage boys. With this team, it is not only about a hobby and sports, though. These boys make a part of one of Ulvila’s two Icehearts teams, and in addition to the tactics of next week’s game, they have been strengthening their life grip with their mentor for almost ten years now.

The Icehearts model offers long-term professional support for children who have been deemed to need a little extra help while growing up. One team, with players selected according to professional criteria, trains together with their mentor for 12 years. The mentor of these 15–18-year-old boys from Ulvila is Jani Söderling, and they have been on this journey together for almost ten years now.
“The core group of about ten children, six or seven years old, was put together from boys born in 2000 and 2001, in Year One or in preschool at the time, in a cooperative effort of social services, early education services and local schools. The group was small in size when it started and, along the way, new members have been accepted when it has been possible considering the social capacity of the team,” explains Jani Söderling.

Jani Söderling © Julia Hannula

As an Icehearts mentor, Jani Söderling has many roles. One of these is to be the goal-keeper in the training sessions and games of the team. 

Against social exclusion

In addition to the children who need special support in their growth to adulthood, children who would not otherwise have an opportunity to take up a hobby are picked for the team. A typical member of an Icehearts team can be, for example, a child of an immigrant, single parent or a family with many children and limited opportunities for free-time activities. At present, Söderling’s team has 20 boys, but the line-up still keeps changing.
“One boy joined the team last year and we are getting a new reinforcement in the coming days, when a boy from an Icehearts team in Vantaa joins us after moving to the area.”

Supporting families in their upbringing task is an important part of the activities.

When a new team starts, the daily routine is clear for the first few years.
“The children go to school in the morning and in the afternoon they attend our afternoon club activities, where we do the homework, have a snack, play outside and learn about different sports playing all kinds of games. Supporting families in their upbringing task is an important part of the activities.

Icehearts-joukkue harjoituksissaan © Julia Hannula

A free-of-charge hobby increases the social network of the Icehearts team members. 

After the first few years, the afternoon club activities are replaced by a free-of-charge hobby. The decision on which sport to choose is made together, and the boys in Ulvila picked floorball.
“In addition to practicing the sport, we go on excursions and have camps a few times a year. An excursion can mean, for example, attending an ice-hockey game of Ässät, the local championship league team. There is a small-scale camp during the winter break, with just some of  the boys, and before summer holiday starts, almost all Finnish teams organise bigger camps where all members of the team participate. We work in close cooperation with boys teams’ of the same age in Helsinki and Vantaa and organise the summer camp together.

Watch an introductory video of the Icehearts.

Best friend and other honorary duties

The main elements of Icehearts activities are school work, family work and something to do in the free time. The lifecycle of a team is long, which means that the mentor can support the children and their families in as many of their life challenges as possible. The mentor always has an overall picture of the life of the growing child.
“We are a part of all the network meetings concerning each of the boys. No matter if they are school meetings, social services or family counselling meetings, student welfare groups or parent-teacher meetings.”

For Söderling, his engagement as an Icehearts mentor is a way of life rather than a job. The lifecycle of the team is 12 years, but he believes that he will keep in touch with the boys even after that. The boys have discovered tools for a good start in life during the years, but Söderling has found the journey educational for himself, too.
“This has certainly given me new insight to life. We have been through a lot of sad times and good times and everything in-between. It is breath-taking to watch these boys grow.”

“We, the mentors, are ordinary grown-ups who are there when we promise to be there.”

A mentor’s role means having to be there for the child and giving him the support he needs.
“We are ordinary grown-ups who are there when we promise to be there. We listen to the children and adolescents and show genuine interest in their matters. Sometimes it means tutoring an adolescent in secondary school or going to pick up someone for school every morning so that he will receive his diploma. I have been involved in one boy’s school work all this time. Now he his in his first year at a vocational college and everything is going really well.”

For life, not for sports

Sports are an important tool in Icehearts activities. They serve the goals of preventing obesity, improving the physical form and mental well-being of children and extending their social network. Team sports are a good way of learning companionship and the players will learn, in practice, what hard work does for your skills.
“It is great to notice how boys who normally socialise in entirely different circles and have no interaction with each other at school, give each other after-goal high-fives on the court. Roles are forgotten on the court.”

“One of the boys used to move the clock forward at home so that he would not have to wait so long before going to practice.”

The team is important to the boys in many ways.
“One of the boys used to move the clock forward at home so that he would not have to wait so long before going to practice.” Another one recently told me that when he started, he had no friends, and now he has 20.

Lämmittelyä Icehearts-harjoituksissa © Julia Hannula

For Söderling, his engagement in Icehearts is a way of life rather than a job.

The boys have also grown fond of their mentor.
“When one of the boys who had been with us from the beginning had to name three of his most important people in an assignment in Finnish class, he had named me after his mother and father. That is a big deal. And when it comes to best friends, I make a lot of top 10 lists.”

“I want to extend a big thanks to all our partners and everyone whose donations make it possible for us to continue the work we do.”

The Icehearts associations in Finland, Söderling’s employee, celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2016. The umbrella organisation receives funding from Finland’s Slot Machine Association. There are almost 30 teams in 10 towns in Finland, and they are managed locally. The operations of the Icehearts association in Satakunta was kicked off in Ulvila with support granted by the Pori region Leader funding. The City of Ulvila has been involved from the beginning and pays the association financial aid that is used to cover the pay of one of the two mentors. All the remaining funding is received as donations.

“I want to extend a big thanks to all our partners and everyone whose donations make it possible for us to continue the work we do,” says Söderling.

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