The holidays are a fantastic time of year to be with those you love. In the American northeast, the region I call home, the warmth of family, leisure, and reconnecting with old friends always presented a nice respite from the increasingly cold and shortening days. It’s a time of thanks and reflection during which I was afforded an opportunity to think about what had happened in the past 12 months, 5 years, or other generally arbitrary timeline.

In my work through CTC Ten with AMANDLA, the place of relationships, particularly role models and mentors, has been a transcendent topic. Sport-based youth development is at its best when children are given consistency and meaningful relationships with peers as well as positive adult figures. Here, consistency is offered through the existence of the field and Safe-Hub. Kids know that they can come by at the same times each week to play a game they know, interact with kids they know, coaches (PlayMakers) they know, and take part familiar practices each week.

The relationships are a bit more ethereal as is always the case when speaking of relationships. Through the participant-first mentality in the organization, kids should be able to look at any adult at the field—coach, staff, security—and see someone who acts as a guiding example of how to live. That can take its form through an uncompromising values-based approach to their jobs, or through the tone taken in engaging with kids, or the pure joy of working on a daily basis. It can take a million different forms.

Regardless of how the role of mentor or model is realized, it is critical to the long term influence of a program like ours. It’s critical because despite all the best bells and whistles, theories and tools, documentation and oversight, it is in the person-to-person, coach-to-player, friend-to-friend interaction that they rubber meets the road.

Drawing on my life experience, I can say that I am where I am because through deliberate and organic circumstances, I have had mentors and role models throughout my life. In some circumstances, I have also had anti-heroes, but through the unwavering support of others, I managed to identify them as such.

In the townships in which there are high rates of unemployment, there are drug problems, and gang violence is unfortunately prevalent, the need for strong role models from the community are that much more important. Amidst the many social development organizations that depend on international volunteers to play the role of teacher or mentor, AMANDLA separates itself by populating the Hubs with home grown heroes.

Former professional soccer players, community organizers and caring adults work directly with the kids. Surely, they each have their own motivations for what they do, but all are able to provide a narrative of how and why they ended up where they did. They are capable, deliberately or organically, of becoming a mentor or role model to the kids. They have the ability to see themselves in the kids who frequent the field and the kids have the ability to do the same with them. In being able to see one’s own future, one is able to begin taking the necessary steps to see it become real.

During the holiday season, friends and family back in the states are convening around the dinner table to slow down for a moment, escape the cold, and reflect on a year gone by. It’s also a chance to recognize those guiding lights we’ve all had. Some are obvious repeat role models, others are less recognizable and may have guided with a single thought, contribution, or action. All communities can benefit from more positive actors, so, if you haven’t already, take a moment during these holidays to recognize those from whom you’ve benefited and consider the ways in which you can do the same for others—peers, siblings, or the young people in your life.

Happy holidays. Stay safe. Stay warm. Stay happy!