Finnish social worker Ville Turkka was a promising ice hockey player as a child. Despite his love for the game, he was frustrated by the way senior coaches treated children unequally. Back then, he made a promise to himself that as an adult he would always treat children with the utmost respect.
Later as a social worker, Ville came across many young people experiencing problems related to drug use, crime and violence. Despite their hard exteriors, he saw fragile young people who needed a direction in life.
In 1996, Ville had an idea. He wanted to help these vulnerable children who were at risk of social exclusion, and he believed ice hockey could provide the solution. Icehearts was born.
“I sat in a bar one evening in 1996, and I put all that Icehearts is today to paper.”
Icehearts is a long-term sport programme that supports children and youth from unstable backgrounds, and an organisation built on the foundations of Ville’s values of mutual respect, tolerance and comradeship.
Children are identified when they are six years old with the help of social services and education professionals to form ice hockey teams. Each child is enrolled in a 12-year programme, introduced to ice hockey and integrated into an Icehearts team.
Icehearts is more than a sports club, it is also a support network aimed at preventing social exclusion, promoting social skills and creating a safe environment for children. Children and families are supported at home and at school, and the club offers reliable mentors who children can turn to in times of need.
Ville explains: “Mothers also have someone to call when they need support. Many of these children are emotionally challenged and sometimes violent.”
Icehearts offers not only ice hockey but other activities such as football, floorball and fishing. Children go on trips to ice hockey matches and build strong relationships both within and outside the ice rink. What started as one boys’ team back in 1996 is now a national organisation supporting over 500 boys and girls.
Ville believes that building a strong relationship with the children is key to Icehearts’ success: “The most important thing for me is helping the guys who have basic security issues, and showing them that there are adults out there who are worth trusting. I love getting to know the kids individually.”
“The boys have very different individual needs. We separate boys and girls into different teams both for the purpose of the sport itself and also to focus on their emotional needs.”
Ville has seen many young men and women in the teams grow into disciplined, respectful young people. He acknowledges that Icehearts can’t make the problems disappear, but he has seen hundreds of children make huge improvements in their social skills: “I saw a change in each of them. Without us, their problems were overwhelming. With us, things were always better.”
With hundreds of young people benefitting from the project, Ville believes that sustaining a personalised approach has been key to his success: “They know that I’m very proud of them. That’s the way it goes. When they realise that Ville is not going anywhere from their lives, that’s when we start to build real trust.”